The Rays had one of the worst seasons in franchise history last year. As a general manager that never sits well. Erik Neander heads into his first season as GM of the club, and it’s hard to imagine the team totaling fewer than the 68 wins from a year ago. If you ask me, the only thing he would like for Valentine’s Day this year is for pitchers and catchers to report safely as scheduled. February 14 is the day that many fans will get their first look at several new members of the team. And several non-roster invitees hoping to make the club.
Here’s a look at the full list of non-roster invitees heading into spring training:
On the Mound:
P: Jeff Ames
P: Dana Eveland
P: Andrew Kittredge
P: Justin Marks
P: Diego Moreno
P: Neil Wagner
I’d like to start by saying that I don’t think any of these guys will be heading to St. Petersburg in April. A solid starting rotation, two lefties that have shown the ability in the back-end of the bullpen, and an all-star closer. Most of these names appear to be nothing more than organizational depth.
Ames is worth keeping an eye on however. In 2015, the Rays moved him to the bullpen after making 48 starts through four minor league seasons. Since the move, he has posted 10 wins and a 2.64 ERA in relief. Last season, in 63 innings pitched, opponents batted just .200 against him.
The biggest concern with Ames is his control. If he can develop better command of the zone he could a contributor this season. Control should come with comfort. Entering his third season as a relief pitcher, look for Ames to lower his walk-rate from the 5.41 BB/9, over the past two seasons.
Behind the Dish:
C: Nick Ciuffo
C: Jonah Heim
C: Michael McKenry
Ciuffo was a first-round pick in 2013 but that hasn’t been much of a blessing for the teams first-round selections over the last eight years. McKenry has plenty of MLB experience, including a playoff run with the Pirates in 2013, but that is probably not going to be enough for him to break camp with the club.
Even with newly acquired all-star Wilson Ramos (ACL surgery) expected to miss the first few months, Luke Maile will be given every opportunity to start. Curt Casali handles the pitching staff in a way that will all-but guarantee him a spot.
Across the Infield:
1B: Casey Gillaspie
1B: Dalton Kelly
2B: Ryan Brett
2B: Jake Hager
3B: Patrick Leonard
Casey Gillespie is the big name here. If not for the recent decision to bring back Logan Morrison, Gillaspie may have been looking at entering the season with the big-league club. He has the potential to hit 20-plus bombs, but might strikeout 175-200 times. The team will be better suited giving their No. 9 overall prospect everyday at-bats in the minors.
The steady rise of Patrick Leonard, over the last two seasons, may have helped when pulling the trigger on the Richie Shaffer trade to Seattle. In just 74 games last year, Leonard hit .286, with nine homers, and 47 runs batted in for Double-A Montgomery. Struggles after being called up to Durham will all but guarantee that is where he starts the 2017 campaign.
Patrolling the Outfield:
OF: Jake Bauers
OF: Johnny Field
OF: Shane Peterson
OF: Dayron Varona
OF: Rickie Weeks
On Friday, the Rays signed veteran Rickie Weeks to a minor league deal. Don’t let this signing go un-noticed. Versatility and veteran leadership have been a recipe for success recently in Tampa Bay.
With the addition of Colby Rasmus and his .136 BA against LHP last season, the Rays could use some right-handed help in the outfield. If that truly is where Weeks fits in. Last season, with Arizona, he batted .284 against south-paws. Significantly better than the contributions of Rasmus, but also better than his outfield teammates Kevin Kiermaier (.262 BA) and Corey Dickerson (.241 BA).
Dayron Varona has big-time power. The Rays will look to harness that in the minors and it’s possible that Varona could make his MLB debut at Tropicana field in 2017.
It appears as though the Rays have solidified 12 of the 13 offensive guys that will suit up on opening day. So that leaves just one spot. Rickie Weeks provides so many things that the Rays covet. He can play first base to platoon with Morrison and Brad Miller. He can be that right-handed bat in the outfield when Dickerson or Kiermaier need a day off.
Many have criticized the trade of Logan Forsythe. However I think Weeks, just as Forsythe was after the departure of Ben Zobrist, will be a pleasant surprise for this club in 2017.