Rays relying on pitching, defense as 2018 season approaches
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- The Tampa Bay Rays will have a new look in 2018.
A lingering question entering spring training is to what extent.
Evan Longoria is gone. So are Alex Cobb, Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda.
Jake Odorizzi, and maybe even two-time All-Star Chris Archer or closer Alex Colome, could be on the way out, too, with the budget-minded team committed to trimming payroll while also trying to remain competitive in the tough AL East.
Closing the gap on defending division champion Boston and the big-spending New York Yankees, who've added Giancarlo Stanton after coming within one victory of reaching the World Series, won't be easy.
The Rays finished 80-82 in 2017, their fourth consecutive losing record on the heels of a stretch in which they made the playoffs four times in six seasons.
"It's a challenge. You can't sugarcoat it," manager Kevin Cash, entering his fourth season, said of the Yankees adding Stanton, baseball's home run leader, to an already potent batting order.
"I've already sat and thought about the lineup," Cash added. "I don't know how they will do it, but it doesn't really matter. ... They're going to be very balanced, very powerful, but we're going to have to kind of rely on our bread and butter -- and that's good pitching and play some good defense."
That's really nothing new for the Rays, who hit a club-record 228 homers last season (sixth in the majors) while ranking 14th in the AL in runs scored.
Pitching remains the team's chief asset.
Although Cobb departed as a free agent and there's still the prospect of trades involving other starters, the Rays are confident they'll head into the season with a talented young rotation capable of helping the team be competitive.
Some of the young arms that don't wind up in that rotation could be candidates for the bullpen, where the departures veterans Tommy Hunter, Steve Cishek, Sergio Romo and Brad Boxberger have opened jobs.
"I think we're going to have a bunch of guys from our farm system, namely in Triple-A, come in and compete," Cash said.
"We started a bunch of pitchers last year," the manager added. "We're not going to have nine starting pitchers, so we're really going to have to find ways to put them in successful situations in the bullpen."
Some things to watch for during spring training:
Outfielder Denard Span, obtained in the trade that sent Longoria to San Francisco, is the biggest name added to the roster this winter. Shipping Longoria, the team's third baseman for 10 seasons, guarantees a fresh look in the infield, where Matt Duffy, Brad Miller and Daniel Robertson are among those competing for spots around shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Hechavarria played well at shortstop after being acquired from Florida in a trade last summer, but it's unclear how the remainder of the infield will look, especially with Duffy returning from a heel injury that sidelined him all of last season.
With Odorizzi's and, perhaps, Archer's short-term future uncertain entering spring training, it may been awhile before the pitching rotation comes together, Meanwhile, Cash has to sort out the infield situation, and re-configure the top half of a batting order that no longer features Longoria (20 homers last season, Morrison (38) and Duda (30 between Rays, New York Mets).