Revamped Rays expect to contend for playoff berth again
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) The Tampa Bay Rays have a new look and the same old plan for success.
Pitching and defense propelled the budget-minded club during a stretch of six consecutive winning seasons that produced four playoff berths, two AL East championships and one trip to the World Series.
And president of baseball operations Matt Silverman sees no reason why the Rays can’t continue thrive after a winter of dramatic change.
Andrew Friedman, the crafty young architect of the teams that prospered despite payroll constraints, is gone. So is manager Joe Maddon, who opted out of the final year of his contract to take a hefty pay raise to try to transform the Chicago Cubs into winners.
With Silverman calling the shots the past three months, the Rays hired first-time manager Kevin Cash and overhauled their roster primarily through seven trades involving 30 players, including three-time All-Star Ben Zobrist, outfielders Wil Myers and Matt Joyce, shortstop Yunel Escobar, catcher Ryan Hanigan, starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson and relievers Joel Peralta and Cesar Ramos.
”There are lots of ways to describe it. I like to call it a reloading, of the team and organization,” Silverman said. ”We were able to bring on a number of new players in the organization, at the major league level and at the minor league level, that are going to provide value and impact for years to come.”
What Silverman insists the makeover isn’t is conceding anything competitively.
The 38-year-old executive expects the Rays, who dropped 85 games last year for their first losing record since 2007, to contend for a playoff berth this season.
Newcomers to the roster include infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, catcher Rene Rivera, designated hitter John Jaso, outfielder Steven Souza Jr., and pitchers Kevin Jepsen, Ernesto Frieri and Burch Smith.
And while starting pitching and defense remain the club’s strongest assets, Silverman thinks an anemic offense has a chance to be better, too.
Tampa Bay was last in the AL in runs (612) and 13th in homers (117) last season.
”A lot of that is based on our expectations that the players that are returning will perform better than they did last year,” Silverman said.
Myers, just a season removed from winning AL Rookie of the Year honors, was traded to San Diego and power-hitting prospect Souza was obtained from Washington in a three-team, 11-player deal.
”It should be compelling,” Silverman added. ”The talent level is certainly there. It just looks different than it has in years past.”
At 37, Cash is the youngest manager in the majors. He spent the past two seasons as Cleveland’s bullpen coach and has no previous managerial experience.
He’s confident, though, Tampa Bay has what it takes – beginning with a solid pitching rotation projected to include Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly and Jake Odorizzi when the season opens – to get back to the playoffs.
Left-hander Matt Moore, an 18-game winner two years ago, appears on track to return from Tommy John surgery later this summer.
”I feel like we’re a very competitive, good team,” Cash said.
Pitchers and catchers reported Saturday, and the first official workout is Monday.
”I know as a group … we’re excited,” Cash added. ”We probably don’t pay too much attention to what’s said outside of this group. We keep our thoughts to ourselves on it, but we’re very excited about starting spring and producing a good ballclub.”
Silverman also is undaunted by talk about the Rays’ imminent demise.
”Those experts had us in the World Series last year, and we won 77 games. So maybe I’ll take the lower expectations and see if it works out better for us this year,” Silverman said.
”We have confidence, and I think all that matters is the players in the clubhouse believe we can win, believe they have what it takes individually and collectively to be able to win,” he said. ”That’s where the optimism comes from.”