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Spring Training has sprung in Port Charlotte.

PORT CHARLOTTE, FL – It was a warm start to Spring Training on Monday as players filed into the Rays clubhouse at Charlotte Sports Park in Charlotte County, Florida. There were hugs and handshakes. Media stood around waiting to welcome the 2017 roster and get a quick quote or two on a relatively laid back morning. Not much was happening on Monday. Players arrived, got their physicals, and went to their respective groups for some warm ups on one of the many beautiful fields at the Port Charlotte complex – home to not just the Tampa Bay Rays MLB club in the spring but also their single-A affiliate, Charlotte Stone Crabs.

Pitchers and catchers don’t officially report until Tuesday with the first full squad workout not scheduled until Sunday the 19th. Monday, however, was the annual press conference held right before the official start of camp featuring the likes of manager Kevin Cash, entering his third Grapefruit League as skipper of the Rays, as well as Senior VP of Baseball Operations/GM, Erik Neander, and Senior VP of Baseball Operations, Chaim Bloom. Neander and Bloom enter their first years in their respective positions.

The press conference began with Kevin Cash sending his thoughts and prayers to long-time Tampa sports radio host, Steve Duemig, who was just diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer last week. Then he, Neander, and Bloom all provided their perspectives and analysis on not just the Rays off-season acquisitions but also injuries and the outlook of the 2017 season.

Regarding arguably the biggest off-season pick up, catcher Wilson Ramos, Bloom says the veteran and former Washington National backstop is optimistic about an early return from his ACL surgery but that there was no set time frame, yet.

Cash sounded very optimistic about where the team ended last season, especially with a few of their key pickups from last off-season.

“Not to sound like a broken record,” Cash said. “Corey Dickerson, Brad Miller, and Logan Morrison really came on strong for us at the end of last year. If we see that to start the season, that’s kind of like three different players then we had to start last year. Let’s finish where we left off last season with those guys then you bring in Colby (Rasmus) and the way Kevin Kiermaier finished last year – we like the way we did some things offensively. We know we have to get better but we’re incredibly optimistic.”

On top of bringing in Ramos, the Rays continued to build their depth at catcher including having back Luke Maile and Curt Casali they also have Michael McKenry, former Mariner Jesus Sucre, as well as prospects Nick Ciuffo and Jonah Heim.

Neander seemed very pleased with the catching situation in camp this year.

“There’s been a lot of turnover,” he said. “A lot of guys in for a year, out for a year. One of the things we’re gonna have this camp is a couple of guys like Luke and Curt who know our pitchers well. That’s something we haven’t necessarily had in a while.”

With the World Baseball Classic beginning in March and pitchers Chris Archer and Alex Colome on the USA and Dominican team respectively – it’s understandable to be concerned about their work load during spring training. Cash didn’t seem worried about his potential ace and All Star closer.

“It’s a great honor for these guys to get to go play and represent their country,” he said. “We have a little bit more time this spring so we can stretch some guys out and their workloads out. You’re cautiously optimistic that these guys are gonna be smart about their workload. The two guys that are going at the big league level do a really good job at managing and knowing their limitations.”

As far as the expectations in 2017 after a very disappointing year in 2016 and a third consecutive year missing the post-season, once again it was Cash expressing great optimism with this year’s club.

“We expect to be playing games in October.” the third-year skipper said. “That’s the goal. We’re confident with what we’ve done this off-season, confident with the core guys we had finishing the year. Look at what our strengths are, a lot of people would agree starting pitching was our strength coming into last year and we still feel the same way. It was unfortunate that we hit a little bump in the road and they all had it happen at one time, it was a tough 25 days to overcome. We’re optimistic with our pitchers, our position core.”

Maybe the most surprising statement of the day was Cash’s answer to who would be the “ace” come Opening Day between Archer and a returning to full strength Alex Cobb.

“We got some really good pitchers. I don’t think now is the time to define really anything. It’s a time to catch up, watching what the guys have done, and we’re all excited to see the guys off the mound. I don’t think anything, at this time, needs to be defined.”

Tuesday will be that day. No, not a day just to gush over the one you love with chocolate and hearts but a day that Cash and fans will, indeed, be able to see the pitchers finally throwing off the mound. They’ll be able to hear the crack of the bats during live BPs and simulated games as spring training gets underway. They’ll be able to smell the freshly cut grass and take in the beautiful weather of Charlotte County in February. Maybe the most exciting thing is the potential that lies ahead. Every team begins the spring slate on an even playing field. Put aside all the computer and expert predictions on February 13th. The only thing that truly matters is how this team looks come Opening Day when the New York Yankees come to Tropicana Field and at that time – let the predictions fly.

Until then – enjoy some Grapefruit League action. Come on down to Charlotte Sports Park only about a 90 minute drive south of Tampa. Support this Rays team that just might have the buzz of a contender, again.

Above all else – just enjoy baseball…because it’s back!

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