Rays turn to Díaz to solve first-base gap ... for now

February 20th, 2023

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- A new accessory arrived with in the Rays' clubhouse on Monday: a first baseman’s mitt, ready to be broken in.

“Last year, they were borrowed,” Díaz said. “They weren’t mine.”

Asked when he planned to utilize the glove most, Díaz replied: “During the season.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash then put things even more directly.

“He’s going to play first base,” Cash said. “A lot.”

And so they distilled one of the biggest questions hanging over Rays camp, where the club held its first full squad workout Monday at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex. Who would get the bulk of the first-base reps come Spring Training had been a point of debate since the club traded to the Pirates in November.

For the Rays, the most straightforward solution at this point is turning to Díaz, who inked a three-year extension in January that could keep him in Tampa Bay through 2026. Primarily a third baseman last season, Díaz made 17 appearances at first and has made as many as 81 in a season, as recently as '21. He is also coming off a career year offensively in '22, when he hit .296/.401/.423 with nine homers, 33 doubles, 57 RBIs, more walks (78) than strikeouts (60), a 143 OPS+ and 3.5 WAR. His .383 OBP since the start of the '20 season ranks third-best among American League hitters.

“I feel very happy,” Díaz said. “I think it’s been a pretty good year.”

Sticking with Díaz at first may benefit the Rays in several ways. He has proven more than capable at the position, rating as a better defender at that position (career 5 Outs Above Average, per Statcast) than at third (-5 OAA) in his career. Moving him across the diamond also likely opens up hot-corner opportunities for , and the versatile , not to mention No. 2 prospect Curtis Mead.

“Early on, it took a little bit of work,” Díaz said. “I put in a little bit of time and effort. But splitting between third and first over the last few years, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable [at first.]”

That’s how the situation looks on the first day of camp, at least. Things could certainly play out differently during the regular season, especially if the Rays add another bat before Opening Day. Even if they don’t, this being the Rays, they’ve afforded themselves the necessary depth to get creative and mix and match.

It’s not difficult to envision Díaz and the left-handed-hitting forming a strong first-base platoon, with the occasional move from second benefiting Lowe’s recovering back. Paredes is coming off a 20-homer season and can play first, second and third, while Aranda is a left-handed hitter whose best position is first, and he doesn’t have much left to prove at Triple-A.

The Rays also have their 2022 Opening Day first baseman, Harold Ramírez, as an option, though he’s best suited at DH. Mead is a third baseman by trade and could mix things up further with a big spring.

In short, there are a lot of moving parts. Lots of possibilities.

That’s usually how the Rays like it.

“I always say this is the best team in MLB,” Díaz said. "I am going to continue saying it, not just today. I think we’re going to have a pretty good season.”