Why Rays spring training camp should be a lot of fun

PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays camp should start looking, and sounding, fun this week.

With full-squad workouts beginning Monday and exhibition games Saturday, the combination of youthful enthusiasm, high-energy newcomers and competition — to some degree — for a half-dozen spots on the 26-man, opening-day roster should create a lively atmosphere.

“I think we typically have camps that are energetic, and there’s optimism and there’s also talent,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “We have a lot of talent. So that all plays into it.

“But, yes, the players that are young, new to the organization or coming up through the system, where there’s some excitement, that certainly adds to it.”

The monotony of 5½ weeks of camp can dull that, though the March 8-10 trip to the Dominican Republic will provide a break. Obviously, injuries and other issues can change the mood. And some players may not deal well with the pressures of competition.

But there should be a lot to watch for.

Young players such as Jonathan Aranda, Taj Bradley and Curtis Mead have had tastes of the majors and want to earn the chance to have breakout seasons, as Josh Lowe did last year.

Newcomers such as Jose Caballero, Jonny DeLuca, Richie Palacios and Ryan Pepiot will seek to show why they were acquired and how they can fit in.

Prospects Junior Caminero and Carson Williams, two of the best in the game, will relish the chance to show they can play with and against big-leaguers.

Plus, there is whatever always-entertaining All-Star Randy Arozarena has planned — or just does — next.

Toward the end of March, Neander, manager Kevin Cash and staff will make final decisions on a starting shortstop, Nos. 4 and 5 starters, the final bullpen slot or two, plus the backup catcher, infield and outfield jobs. They will weigh positional and roster flexibility (including who has an option to be sent down), along with who can help most now.

“There’s a lot to sort out,” Neander said.

Unlike other years when the Rays pretty much knew — barring injury — how the roster would take shape, the way players perform during this spring will matter some. But decisions will be based much more on process, physical condition and improvement than exhibition-game performance.

“Spring stat lines are not what we’re going to make decisions on, really, one way or the other short of something absolutely extreme and unprecedented,” Neander said. “That’s the message we will make very clear to the players.”

More so, Neander said, they will look at a combination of what players can do and how they are doing it.

“First, you’re assessing a player’s physical well-being, you’re assessing their proficiency to cover different positions on the field and their comfort with that. And on the pitching side, and the players as well, a lot of process-oriented feedback,” Neander said. “... We’re focused on these players preparing themselves for the season and the ways that they can best contribute.”

So far, it’s all been good.

“Everybody’s excited,” Neander said. “There’s lots of energy. The vibes are good right now.”

Uniform information

MLB and Nike made official what has been reported here previously, that the Rays will debut a City Connect jersey during the season. The reveal will come sometime between opening day and the All-Star break. Given the market, expect some interesting reaction over which city is featured. … The team again will wear the Devil Rays throwback jerseys for Friday home games. … The new industry-wide, high-performance Nike brand jerseys are getting — at best — mixed reviews given the reduced size and lower placement of names on the back, as well as some other cosmetic details. Fit of the pants also has been discussed.

Rays rumblings

Yandy Diaz was No. 38 and Arozarena 40 in MLB Network’s ranking of the Top 100 players right now; Josh Lowe was previously revealed as No. 77, Isaac Paredes 78. … Like last spring, clubhouse lockers were assigned to mix pitchers with position players, creating opportunities for additional interaction and team-building. … There is no locker set up for Wander Franco, who is on the 40-man roster but not expected to report to camp as investigations and legal processes continue in the Dominican Republic regarding allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a minor. … Caminero ranked fourth, Williams 21st, Mead 31st and first baseman Xavier Isaac 93rd in’s list of 101 top prospects. … How highly does reliever Jason Adam think of Cash’s work managing the Rays, with a 739-617 record and five playoff appearances (though no championships) in nine seasons? “It’s a Hall of Fame career already,” Adam said. … Rays scouts will be looking for experienced catching depth this spring. … Noting Neander and Cash both wore blazers to Thursday’s MLB spring media day event at Steinbrenner Field, former Rays coach/current Pirates manager Derek Shelton said: “They won best dressed.” … Very nice touches for Dave Wills’ April 14 team Hall of Fame induction day, giving away a tropical-style shirt like the late radio broadcaster favored and making it a Dog Day, as he loved bringing his German shepherd, Bella, to the Trop. … Reliever Colin Poche was recently inducted into the Circle of Honor at Dallas Baptist University, where he was an All-American in 2016. … Commissioner Rob Manfred will join the Rays and Red Sox in the Dominican Republic for their March 9-10 exhibitions. Both teams will wear caps with special patches. … Speaking with Rays radio broadcaster Andy Freed on WDAE, Manfred said Tampa Bay “is a major-league (market); I’ve been absolutely consistent in that view.” … As if spring training isn’t enough baseball, Cash and Neander also are helping coach their son’s youth-league teams. … The High A Bowling Green Hot Rods will play several games this season as the Cavemen, to “represent the many beautiful cave systems scattered across the state of Kentucky.” … No major changes are expected to the Bally Sports Sun TV crew.

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