ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Rays like their chances of returning to the playoffs and reject the notion that winning the World Series during a season shortened by the coronavirus pandemic would be less impressive than capturing a title under normal circumstances.
“This season counts. It counts just as much as any other,” defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier said.
“You’ve got 30 teams right now with the same record, just the way we show up in spring training,” the three-time Gold Glove centerfielder added. “You usually play 162 games. But if every team is asked to play 60 games in 66 days, then we all have the same opportunity.”
Coming off consecutive 90-plus win seasons, as well as their first postseason appearance since 2013, the cost-conscious Rays have already shown they’re capable of competing with teams with much larger payrolls.
Kiermaier said there’s no reason to believe he and his teammates can’t win it all.
Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow head a pitching rotation with the potential to be one of the best in baseball.
The offense could be more potent, too, following the addition of Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, outfielder Hunter Renfroe and infielder/designated hitter Jose Martinez.
“Each and every year you win as many ball games as you can ... you hope that you’re fortunate to lift up that trophy in the end. We know how hard and difficult that is, but it’s very attainable,” Kiermaier said.
“And once again, I don’t care if there’s an asterisk next to World Series champs 2020. The asterisk gives you a little description down below: 60 games played due to coronavirus,” Kiermaier added. “I’ll take that any day of the week. My teammates will, too. ... There’s going to be a lot of excuses thrown around by a lot of different players and teams. We’re going to try to limit those around here.”
Tsutsugo signed a $12 million, two-year contract in free agency after batting .272 with 29 homers and 79 RBIs in Japan last season. Renfroe (33 homers, 89 RBIs in 140 games with Padres) and Martinez (.269, 10, 42 in 128 games with Cardinals) add some thump to the middle of a retooled lineup that lost catcher Travis d’Arnaud and outfielders Tommy Pham and Avisail Garcia.
In addition to having one of the strongest rotations in the AL, the Rays have an abundance of young, talented arms in the bullpen.
Manager Kevin Cash’s creative use of openers and “bullpen days” was an integral part of winning 90 and 96 games the past two seasons. Eleven different pitchers earned at least one save in 2019, and the shortened season will pose new challenges.
“Our history has shown we’re going to continue to find ways to utilize and get the best matchups we see fit for pitchers,” Cash said.
“I’m definitely excited for what we’re going to be able to accomplish this year,” Snell the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner, said. “It’s a team full of talent.”
END OF THE LINE?
Morton went 16-6 with a 3.05 with 240 strikeouts in 194 2/3 innings in 2019, the first season of a two-year, $30 million contract. The Rays hold a team option for 2021, however the 36-year-old right-hander isn’t sure how much longer he wants to play.
“Part of me doesn’t really want to end my career this way, if I could help it,” Morton said. “When you draw it up in your head ... a shortened season amid a pandemic is not the way you really imagine it, but circumstances will dictate that. I really haven’t made up my mind.’’
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Tsutsugo, 28, is making his major league debut after 10 seasons with Yokohama of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball Organization. He’s the fourth Japanese-born player in Rays history, joining Hideo Nomo, Akinori Iwamura and Hideki Matsui.
Top prospect Wander Franco, a 19-year-old switch-hitting shortstop, is part of Tampa Bay’s 60-man pool and may get a chance to contribute, too. With the minor league season cancelled because of the pandemic, the Rays hope the experience will be beneficial to his development.
“The talent is visible. There aren’t many guys across baseball that possess the talent he has,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said entering spring training.
“It’s on us to make sure, as he continues to develop and mature, that he’s fully ready to go when he hits the big stage,” Neander said. “We’re not going to force anything, we’re not going to throw any additional expectations on him. We just want to make sure we do right by him.”