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It was an absolutely gorgeous day in Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Rays prepare to begin Spring Training for the 2016 season. Looking out over the freshly cut grass of the outfield at Charlotte Sports Park, I took a deep breath and soaked in the cool, 72 degree morning before manager Kevin Cash and President of Baseball Operations, Matt Silverman, sat down at the table that overlooked the field.
Just before the press conference began, news broke that the Rays had signed RHP reliever Ryan Webb, a 30-year old native of Clearwater, Florida, to a Major League contract and moving RHP Chase Whitley to the 60-day DL. Webb had spent 2015 with the Cleveland Indians and pitched to the tune of a 3.20 ERA in 40 appearances for the Tribe. The Rays are the seven-year veteran’s fifth team since breaking into the league in 2009 with the San Diego Padres and was drafted back in 2004 by the Oakland Athletics. The most impressive thing about Webb is his 3.65 groundball-to-flyball ratio in 2015 which was good for fifth best in the American League.
During their press conference Thursday, both Silverman and Cash fielded questions ranging from the newly tooled lineup to the gaps in the bullpen with the departure of Jake McGee in the Corey Dickerson trade to Colorado – a move that both seemed quite happy with despite agreeing losing a guy like McGee, who’d been with the club 11 years, was tough.
“It takes trading good players to get good players,” Silverman said. “We believe Dickerson can hit in the middle of our lineup for many years.”
Another topic of discussion was the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen. In 2015, Cash’s first year as manager of the Rays, he came under quite a lot of scrutiny for his use of the bullpen. Brad Boxberger, the reigning American League saves champion, went so far as to elude to the fact that the overuse may have been a cause of his second half struggles last season.
“It would be great to have a starter go seven innings,” said Silverman about the over-worked bullpen. “We want to make sure we have a fresh pen the next day.”
Kevin Cash sung the praises of the Rays starting rotation coming into the new season. “We want our starters to win us games but we need to be healthy. We have a very talented starting staff.”
The Rays made their most impact adding pieces to the lineup in the off-season. Along with Dickerson, players like Steve Pearce and Logan Morrison, both able to play multiple positions in the field, are expected to rebound after sub-par seasons in 2015.
“Pearce had a down year last year but still a productive year,” Silverman said of the former Baltimore Oriole outfielder/first baseman. “Logan is another player we hope to have a rebound year, as well.”
When asked if the Rays had considered protecting star third baseman, Evan Longoria, in the lineup when making these moves, Cash chuckled, “Longo doesn’t need protection. Longo can hit. It’s more about having good hitters feed off each other.”
As it has been most years since the magical 2008 World Series run, Cash expects the pitching staff to be a strength but said it won’t be the only strength the club has in 2016.
“I think we are all excited to see what the lineup does,” the second-year manager said. “Our defense will continue to be a strength.”
Spring Training officially begins for the Rays on Friday when pitchers and catchers report. They will welcome in 82 players with 20 being non-roster invitees. While only 25 will make the Opening Day roster, February and March is a time for the youth and future to shine and for the veterans to chip off any off-season rust before Opening Day on April 3 when the defending AL East Champion Blue Jays come to Tropicana Field.
Can the Rays avoid the injury bug that plagued them throughout the spring and early part of the regular season in 2015? Time will tell.
Silverman and Cash seem very confident that this team, if healthy, can not only compete but make it back to the post-season.
“Since 2008 we feel, every year, that this team can make the playoffs,” Silverman said. “We feel as good as we can about our chances this year.”
All rarely goes as planned in any sport. Injuries can’t be predicted. It seems, before a single pitch has been thrown, that the Rays have done plenty in the off-season to address anything that could stand in their way of returning to the post-season in 2016.
Time will tell.
In the meantime – let’s play ball!
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