Baseball in uncertain times

It is safe to say, baseball fans are keeping their fingers tightly crossed in the hope that something close to a normal season takes place. 

As early as February, it was uncertain as to when the season would begin. Whenever the Rays take the field, the defending American League champions will do so without a couple of familiar faces in the starting rotation. The  Rays opted not to re-sign Charlie Morton and traded Blake Snell to San Diego. Without those two anchoring the rotation, it is easy to think the team will be less competitive.

Alas, the Rays have proven the skeptics wrong, time and again. Exceptional scouting, and player development, serve as the bedrock for an organization that, while toiling at, or near, the bottom when it comes to financial resources, has a knack for finding players that buy into the “Rays Way” and deliver results.

So even without Morton and Snell, doubting the Rays’ ability to win, and win big, in 2021 shall be done at one’s peril.

“Based on the overall talent that is currently on our major league club, as well as the amount of talent that we have throughout our system, we believe strongly that we are well-positioned to be competitive and sustain this level of competitiveness for the foreseeable future,” said general manager Erik Neander, following the late-December trade of Snell.

Kevin Cash, entering his seventh season as the Rays’ manager, expects the clubhouse to maintain the same upbeat disposition and whatever-it-takes approach evident in recent years.

“What makes our clubhouse special is just how much everybody cares about each other,” he said, following departures of Morton and Snell. “Young player or veteran, a guy that was just called up or a guy who was with a different organization, they really embrace each other and I don’t see that changing.”

In mid-December, the Rays agreed to a one-year, $3-million deal with pitcher Michael Wacha. Dealing Snell, who was due $10.5 million this year, and declining the $15-million club option on Morton, provided financial flexibility that could result in another deal, or two.

As it stood less than three weeks from the scheduled start of spring training, Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough and Wacha appear set in the rotation. Josh Fleming, who shined after being called up last season, and former USF star Shane McClanhan, who debuted in the playoffs, are among those who could fill out the rotation.

The team also brought back a familiar face in Chris Archer, who was signed to a one-year, $6.5-million deal on February 2. Luis Patino, acquired from the Padres in the Snell trade, is also a rotation possibility.

A deep and versatile bullpen is led by Nick Anderson, who emerged as a dominant closer. Pete Fairbanks provided a major boost by succeeding in whatever role he was asked to fulfill.

Offensive production should not be a problem for the Rays, especially if corner outfielders Randy Arozarena and Austin Meadows remain healthy. 

After COVID-19 limited him to 23 regular-season games, Arozarena ripped 10 home runs in the playoffs. It’s no wonder fans are anxious to see what he can do over the course of a full season. Meadows, who was limited by the virus and injuries in 2020, showed what an impact he could have during an outstanding 2019 when he led the team in home runs and RBIs. 

There is a surplus of outfielders, though that may not be a bad thing given how the virus might still impact the roster. A few of them could get some at-bats as the designated hitter and fill in at other positions.

An infield that appears set is led by second baseman Brandon Lowe, the Rays’ MVP last season. The sky would seem to be the limit for Willy Adames if he can learn to hit at Tropicana Field, where he has batted .194 the past two seasons. Joey Wendle’s versatility is invaluable.

Catcher is a question mark. Mike Zunino, an outstanding clubhouse presence, was re-signed following a dismal season in which he hit .147. Francisco Mejia, acquired from San Diego in the deal for Snell, is largely an unknown quantity.
    There are always question marks and they always seem to be answered by a team that often goes overlooked, even with the level of success they have achieved in recent years.

“We just don’t get a whole lot of love,” said center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, on MLB Network Radio. “That’s okay. At the end of the day all we care about is winning games. We play the game hard. We play the game the right way. I feel like we are an easy team to root for.”

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