Every spring is the only spring - a perpetual astonishment.
~ Edith Pargeter
Who’s ready to play ball? Who’s ready for possibilities? Who’s ready to break this 30-way tie for best record in baseball, and get some games on? Who’s ready to put some meat on these playoff dreams?
Squint your eyes, Rays fans. And maybe you don’t even have to squint all that hard, if you look in the right places…
Look, with this club, it always starts with Longo. And I’m here to tell you, it’s okay to admit that you were starting to have doubts about the wisdom of that. Coming into last year, it really did look like his bat was slowing down. It did look like he’d lost a step. No, he wasn’t a bad player. But he wasn’t playing like a cornerstone player anymore.
And then last year happened. And don’t you feel terrible for doubting Evan now??? (No, you don’t. And you shouldn’t. But still!) Evan slugged over .500 for the first time since 2012 on his way to a career high 36 dinger season. A million words have been written by writers smarter than I about what was wrong with and what fixed Evan. You know what? I don’t care. What I care about is that we can write his name in ink onto the lineup card (did you know that the guy we used to think was injury-prone has played at least 160 games four years in a row?) and feel good about it.
Evan is back, people.
Last year, Luke Maile led the four catchers who saw time with big club with big ‘ol 0.2 fWAR. So in the off-season, the Rays made it the prime objective to upgrade the position. And they did! They signed Wilson Ramos to a two-year deal, and immediately fixed the position…for 2018. Because Ramos is injured, and won’t be playing at all until at least June, and won’t be catching until even later. But still! We made a move! And a good one, to bring hope to a dry and weary position.
But the RFO was not done! In February, they made the sixty-ninth trade with the Mariners and acquired…I’m sorry, who? Jesus Sucre? Sweet Jesus, who is that? You’re joking right? And it looks like he might even win the job? I mean I know Chris Archer likes him and all, but Derek Norris is just sitting there, waiting for somebody to deal for him. Why haven’t we gotten Derek Norris? No offense, Jesus, but we can’t seriously be going into the season with a catching situation that looks like –
Hrm? The Nats just flat out released Norris, you say? And – and we signed him? For realz?
Yes, yes, I know. Norris was bad last year. Hit .186/.255/.328 for San Diego, on his way to a Hank Conger-ish -0.4 fWAR. But he has a good pedigree. He could seriously be the best catcher this organization has ever had (yay, the soft bigotry of low expectations!), and if not, we cut him loose. There is no downside to this.
I can’t believe I’m actually excited about the Rays catching situation for a change.
Jobu Take Fear From Bats
Looks like Corey Dickerson finally adjusted to the AL, to playing at the Trop, and to playing DH more than he was used to, judging by the regular tape measure shots. And Brad Miller’s power breakthrough was for real, huh? And — BONUS — you didn’t have to suffer through him playing short to watch it.
And how ‘bout that Steven Souza? He obviously gelled with new hitting coach Chad Mottola, cutting down on his strikeouts and hitting the dang ball in the air for a change.
Matt Duffy? His foot is fine, really, but Tim Beckham played a helluva shortstop for the month Duffman was out, then morphed seamlessly into the Über-utility guy you knew he could be, even playing some centerfield.
Kevin Kiermaier Kevin Kiermaier’d, natch.
And that Morrison/Weeks platoon? Yeah, you were skeptical. But that worked out pretty okay.
If half these things turn out to be true, the Rays are in very good shape. If more than half? Look out, Cubs!
Last year’s bullpen was not fun to watch. But Steve Geltz is in the Milwaukee system now, and Dana Eveland is in a Tibetan monastery, so it’s bound to get better just via addition by subtraction, right? And we still have Alex Colome, one of best closers in the game.
And then there’s Austin Pruitt.
What? No, no, I did not stutter. Yes, I am excited about Austin Pruitt. And yes, despite what it looks like in that photo, he’s a pitcher, a relief pitcher, for this team.
Okay, well, maybe I’m not really all that excited about Pruitt as an individual. More like Pruitt as an idea.
Because, no, Austin Pruitt is not anything special in and of himself. (And Austin Pruitt’s mom, if you’re reading this: Hi! We’re really glad he’s on the team, and we hope he has loads of success, so please don’t take any of this the wrong way!) He’s a fringe starter that made the big club out of Spring Training as a bullpen arm, instead of being stashed in Durham for “depth” per organizational protocol. And that is something to get excited over.
Pruitt, along with another fringey starter, Jaime Schultz – who was sent to Durham but will now work as a reliever there and should be on that shuttle soon – marks what looks to be a change in direction by an organization that normally hoards fringe starters like the old lady down the street hoards cats. Could the newly acquired Ryan Yarborough be next? Maybe Taylor Guerrieri? What about Jacob Faria? (Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
Are Pruitt or Schultz going to be any good? I really hope so! Are they worth the risk? Indubitably! Because if we start making relievers on the cheap, especially good ones, instead of always shopping from them on a bargain rack that is becoming less and less of a bargain? That’s … well, that’s good? Right?
I mean, you remember the Dana Eveland Experience, don’t you?
Anyway, speaking of young guys…
Jake Bauer. Willy Adames. Casey Gillaspie. All three of these guys look just about Major League ready. At least one of them is probably going to break into the Show this year. The others won’t be far behind. Will they succeed? Maybe! Will at least one of them flop? Probably! But who was the last minor league bat you were excited to see from this org? Desmond Jennings? This is the year you’ve been waiting for.
If the Rays are going to compete, some things have to go right, and they have to avoid some other things. A good year from Evan. No injury tsunami like last year. If one of those young guys broke through, that would help a lot. A bullpen that was more reliable than Colome-plus-eucalyptus oil would be super cool. But the one deal breaker, the one thing the Rays have always needed, is good, deep starting pitching. And here, there’s still a lot to be excited about.
But it also might require the most squinting.
Is Chris Archer still the guy who can tear down the house? Because he sure looked like it at the WBC.
What about Blake Snell? Can he tap his full potential?
And Alex Cobb. Is he healthy? Is he back?
Throw in Jake Odorizzi as Mr. Reliable and Matt Andriese in the five slot, and this could be a top tier rotation if everything clicks. And if not? Well, there’s top prospects Brett Honeywell, Jose De Leon, and Chih-Wei Hu knocking on the door.
Do you believe?
If you don’t, I’m not sure why you’re here. It’s Spring, and baseball is here, and we’re tied for first place. What more could you want?