Spring Training is close, Tampa Bay Rays fans. Pitchers and catchers report on Friday, and position players follow next Wednesday. The Rays have a fairly clear idea of how they think spring training will play out for them roster-wise. However, crazy things always happen in spring training. With that being said, here are four bold predictions that just could happen this spring.
1. Kevin Kiermaier wins the starting centerfield job
At first look, this is crazy. Don’t the Rays already have Desmond Jennings? But here is the problem: even though Jennings was expected to play above-average defense in centerfield for years to come, he put up a -7.0 UZR/150 there last season. While all yearly defensive stats come with a sample size caveat, this is not encouraging for someone expected to play at a high level defensively. The second problem is Jennings’ inability to hit same-handed hitters. His overall .252/.334/.414 (110 wRC+) in 2013 was slightly above average, but his .231/.311/.386 line against righties is a bit harder to stomach. Maybe Jennings should be put in a platoon with David DeJesus, where he would not have to face as many righties. His defense would also benefit in the move from centerfield to left field, where his career 17.6 UZR/150 says he is much better. Jennings just might be suited better as a platoon player in left with DeJesus, and if the Rays think that it will make their team better, they just might make that move.
Kiermaier would be an instant upgrade defensively over Jennings in center. He is a plus defender thanks to an outstanding combination of range and a strong arm. In fact, if he were to be a big league regular next year, he would be in contention for a gold glove. Where his game is questioned is in his bat, but last year he managed to come into his own in that regard. Kiermaier managed a .307/.370/.434 (134 wRC+) line in Double-A before moving to Triple-A and hitting .263/.338/.423 (112 wRC+). He might still have a bit of work to do at the plate, and that is why most people believe he will at least spend part of the season in Triple-A before he reaches the big leagues. He could start on the big league bench if the bat isn’t quite there yet, but the Rays very rarely let top prospects like Kiermaier go without an everyday job, even if that means sending them to the minors. But what if Kiermaier comes out this spring and hits extremely well? If he proves that last year’s bat was not a fluke in the spring, he could very well upgrade this team’s outfield and claim the centerfield job for himself. That is what make’s this prediction plausible, even if it isn’t likely.
2. One of the starting five won’t have begun the spring with the Rays
The Rays have recently expressed interest in pitcher A.J. Burnett, which at first seemed odd. However, Jeremy Hellickson‘s recent elbow surgery that will keep him out until mid-May at the very minimum makes this interest a bit more conceivable. Jake Odorizzi has the ability to slide into the rotation and replace Hellickson, and has very little left to prove in the minors. He’s not an ace by any standards, but he should be a good number 3-4 starter once he can finally establish himself in the big leagues. However, the Rays’ normally solid pitching depth now looks a bit weak. All of a sudden, the Rays are relying on a pitcher who can’t stay healthy (Alex Colome), a pitcher who hasn’t proven himself above Double-A (Enny Romero), and someone who wasn’t great in his first go at Triple-A last year (Matt Andriese) to supply depth in case of injury. Because of this, they could go out of the organization to find a pitcher and push Odorizzi back to Triple-A for depth purposes. The Rays aren’t going to go out and sign a big name free agent, especially one that comes with draft pick compensation. However, there are enough pitchers still on the market that the Rays could wait until mid way through spring training and snatch one up for a bargain deal. Other than Burnett, one guy who would make sense in this mold is Chris Capuano. The Rays never sign free agent pitchers (Roberto Hernandez is just about Andrew Friedman’s highest-profile starting pitcher signing), but this year is a unique market for pitchers. It isn’t probable, but it makes just enough sense that it could happen.
3. Two non-roster invitees make the Opening Day bullpen
The Rays currently have a huge group of relievers that are vying for the final couple of bullpen spots. Right now it appears as if two spots are up for grabs in the bullpen, as Grant Balfour, Heath Bell, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, and Juan Carlos Oviedo all seem to be locks. However, Oviedo hasn’t thrown a big league pitch in two years, and while he was a good reliever with the Marlins in his prime, he wasn’t a great one. Even though it would be unexpected, Oviedo could very well not be healthy enough to pitch, or simply come back and not have the stuff that he once had. This could open up three spots in the ‘pen. On the 40-man roster the Rays have Cesar Ramos, C.J. Riefenhauser, Josh Lueke, Brandon Gomes, Brad Boxberger, Kirby Yates, and Jeff Beliveau vying for spots, along with Mark Lowe, Steve Geltz, Adam Liberatore, and Juan Sandoval who are non-roster invitees. Especially if Oviedo isn’t healthy, you could make a very good case for two of the non-roster guys to make the bullpen. Lowe is a major league veteran, and although he hasn’t been amazing in his career, he has gotten the job done (4.17 ERA in 274.1 career innings). We did see the Rays get success with a similar type signing last year in Jamey Wright. Geltz was very good in Triple-A last year, posting a 2.82 ERA with a 10.7 K/9. He doesn’t have much more to prove in the minors, and could very well play himself onto a roster spot with a solid spring. As far as making room on the 40-man roster for these two guys, it would be solved easily. Tim Beckham won’t see much action in 2014, if any, so he can be moved to the 60-day DL at the end of spring training. Also, Lueke is out of options, and would be designated for assignment if he didn’t make the bullpen. It might take an injury, but with Oviedo not being a certainty and pitchers always being an injury risk, Geltz and Lowe could very well start the year in the big league bullpen.
4. Sean Rodriguez does not make the team
So far this offseason, it seems as if most people believe Rodriguez will make the Rays’ team. He might have the inside shot at a roster spot, but he is not a sure bet. Rodriguez has been disappointing in his career so far, and he doesn’t come with too much upside. He has the ability to play every position on the diamond but pitcher, something the Rays certainly value a ton, and he hits lefties decently, but he is a fairly unimpressive player. The Rays have three bench spots that will see competition in spring training. Of these three spots, it would appear that the Rays will give two to lefty-mashers to platoon with David DeJesus in left field and Matt Joyce at DH. The third is now up for grabs. Of course, Rodriguez could be one of these lefty-specialists, but these two spots could very well go to Logan Forsythe and Brandon Guyer. Now Rodriguez is left in competition with the likes of Wilson Betemit and Jayson Nix, among other outside candidates. Rodriguez appears to be more attractive for many reasons. Betemit missed almost all of 2013 with injuries, and isn’t the defender that Rodriguez is. Nix is a useful piece, especially defensively, but he doesn’t hit as well as Rodriguez. The Rays infield depth has already been slightly tested with the injury to Tim Beckham, so they Rays might want to keep all the depth they can. However, Betemit has more upside than Rodriguez with the bat, and would give the Rays someone who hits righties better than lefties to go along with the two lefty-masher spots. The Rays already have plenty of defensive-minded players, so they could give up defense in Rodriguez for offense in Betemit. It might take a pretty good spring from Betemit to prove he is over his healthy issues, but it could very well happen, and might just be the most conceivable prediction on this list.
Overall, there is a good chance none of these four predictions end up happening. However, all are possible, and we could see one or more transpire in spring training. The Rays are known for their unconventional front office and coaching staff, so we never know what is going to happen. Spring training always brings its surprises, and these four are just some of the many that could fall into place.