Jose Caballero is pleasantly surprised to have a chance with the Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE — When he woke up, Jose Caballero saw he had 12 missed calls. The infielder’s wife was in the hospital for a minor illness and he had gone out to his car for a quick nap. The 13th call, this one from his agent, woke him.

“I was surprised,” Caballero said of that January call when his agent informed him that he had been traded to the Rays. “I was surprised and I was happy.”

Caballero knew there was a better chance with Tampa Bay to be the every-day shortstop. The Rays think he has the talent and the ability to make the most of that opportunity.

“Certainly he’s going to play short for us. He hasn’t had the reps just because they’ve had a good shortstop in Seattle but he’s played enough second base, third base and shortstop coming up (through the minors) that we feel confident that he’ll be a good defender over there,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said after workouts at the Charlotte Sports Park on Friday morning.

The Rays made the trade with the Mariners — sending Luke Raley to Seattle — to fill a desperate need. Wander Franco, their All-Star shortstop who was to be the foundation of the franchise, is facing accusations of an inappropriate relationship with a minor in his native Dominican Republic. The team has no idea when or if he will be available to play again. Taylor Walls, their versatile backup, is still rehabbing from offseason hip surgery.

Caballero played the bulk of his games at second base last season but made 21 appearances at shortstop. In that time he was rated a plus-four in defensive runs saved by Fangraphs.

Offensively, he hit. 221 with four home runs, nine doubles and a triple in 231 at-bats.

“I think it complements our lineup pretty well,” Cash said of Caballero’s bat. “There’s a lot of contact in there. He’s a baseball player, is going to do things and make adjustments in the game to do whatever he can to help the team win.”

Caballero, in camp since Monday, has already made an impression with his presence.

“The way that he’s carried himself in the clubhouse. You’re watching him walk in the batting cage, he goes and says hello to every staff member, hello to every player that’s in there,” Cash said. “For a new guy, that’s pretty impressive.”

Starting strong

Cash watched the position players who reported early taking infield practice and hitting Friday. So far, he has been most impressed with infielder Curtis Mead.

“It looks like he really he took to heart what (bench coach) Rodney (Linares) and (third base coach) Brady (Williams) said and some of the messaging we gave him defensively,” Cash said. “He worked hard on his defense and he looks really clean catching ground balls at second base and third base at shortstop. He was here a month early, between here and (Tropicana Field) and getting a lot of work in with Brady.”

No wasting time

Rays staff and pitchers met Friday morning to go over the rules that MLB tweaked for 2024.

This season, with runners on base, pitchers will have 18 seconds between pitches, down from 20 last season. MLB proposed the change after seeing the average time of a nine-inning game grow by more than seven minutes, from 2 hours, 36 minutes in April to 2:44 in September.

Also of note for pitchers is that there will be one fewer mound visit, down to four from five per game. Teams that have used their allotment, however, will get one extra visit in the ninth inning, as in the past. MLB saw teams using the mound visits as a way to avoid pitch clock violations.

“It’s just reminders that (MLB) is putting an emphasis on speeding the game up,” Cash said, “and we’re going to do a better job.”

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