Simply put, spring training is a time of competition. Yes, it is there for players to get back up to speed before the season starts, but really spring training is for teams to figure out who their players really are. Even among locks to make the roster, the exhibition season can still give us an idea if that player is going to be good this year or if he is going to be great. Which Tampa Bay Rays players need to prove something in spring training this year?
After hitting 30 home runs in the minors the year that the Rays acquired him from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Rodriguez excited the Rays with his potential. Since cracking the major league roster, however, he has been largely disappointing. He is never going to reach the potential he once had, and he seems to be running out of time on the big league roster. He projects as the 25th man on the roster now, in a large part due to his versatility on the diamond and decent ability to hit lefties. But Rodriguez is no lock to make the roster. The Rays are amassing plenty of options for the spot, with Logan Forsythe and Jayson Nix both being similar players the Rays could resort to. Even if Rodriguez makes it out of spring training with the club, a younger player like Tim Beckham when he is healthy or even Hak-Ju Lee could play his way into Rodriguez’s spot at some point. Rodriguez needs to have a good spring and ride that into success in the big leagues this season. If he stops performing at any point, he could soon find himself lost in the fold.
Jennings has been a good player, but not a great one since being called up in late July of 2011. He looked like a potential star that year, hitting to a .259/.356/.449 line (128 wRC+) in 287 plate appearances. But since then, his wRC+ has been just 98 and 112 the last two seasons, far below what the Rays still believe Jennings has the ability to do. Compounding Jennings’ problems is his defensive issues. Moving over from left field to center field in 2013, Jennings was expected to be an above-average defender. Instead, he managed just a -7.0 UZR/150, making inexplicable mistakes far too often. The encouraging thing, though, is that Jennings has arrived in camp 15-20 pounds heavier than last year and primed to improve. He will continue working on his consistency, and the spring is a great place to start. Prospect Kevin Kiermaier is quickly making a name for himself, and could soon take over Jennings’ starting spot thanks to his plus defense and a vastly improved bat. This needs to be the year that Jennings finally breaks out, and now is the time for him to get the ball rolling.
Who is the real Forsythe, the guy that hit .273/.343/.390 (110 wRC+) in 2012, or the guy that hit .214/.281/.332 (73 wRC+) in 2013? The Rays acquired him hoping that he can be the former, but there is no guarantee yet. Forsythe seems to have the inside track on a roster spot this spring thanks to his versatility, but he will need to earn it. Forsythe does have an option remaining, so Andrew Friedman could send him back to Triple-A if he sees something they don’t like this spring. The Rays have other players like Jayson Nix and Wilson Betemit ready to play their way into roster spots. They are outside candidates at this point, but a great performance by one of them combined with a lousy showing by Forsythe could lead him back to Triple-A. This spring, Forsythe will need to prove that his bat is closer to the 2012 version than the 2013 version to ensure that he makes the team.
The out-of-options Lueke is quickly being forgotten about despite his solid arsenal, and he will need to have a good spring training to salvage his career. He showed his potential by posting a 0.63 ERA with a 12.72 K/9 and a 2.35 BB/9 in 57.1 innings with Triple-A Durham last season. But thus far in his big league career, he has posted an ugly 6.44 ERA in 47 appearances. Maybe his bad ERA is a product of a small sample size–or maybe Lueke is simply one of the players who can’t take the pressure. This spring, he is going to need to pitch his heart out to get a roster spot. He is out of options, which actually helps his case if the Rays want to maintain all the depth possible. But this year, the Rays have plenty of major league caliber relievers, so they will not have a problem giving the roster spot to someone else and designating Lueke for assignment. Lueke still has upside, but it needs to show up this spring before he is lost in the fold.
Guyer has raked in the minor leagues his whole career, and has nothing left to prove there. But Guyer is 28 now and has just 18 big league games under his belt. The reason is that he cannot stay healthy. Guyer had a major shoulder injury in 2012 just after it appeared he was finally on the big league roster to stay, and a broken finger last season cost him a September call up. This spring training, though, Guyer is getting a break. He finds himself in a spot that he has never been in before: a favorite for a roster spot in spring training because he is out of options. It seems as if Guyer will be David DeJesus‘ platoon mate this upcoming season, and his great defense and solid bat (especially against lefties) should make him an interesting all-around player. But if Guyer is going to seize that opportunity, he needs to prove that he is healthy and deserving of a role. If he does not, the Rays have another option besides starting him on the 40-man roster to begin the season–they could put him on the disabled list again.
The Tampa Bay Rays have plenty of players who need to prove something this spring, but the exciting thing is that they all could end up being pretty good players. The Rays roster will begin to come together as spring training continues on. Keep track of these players as they look to establish themselves.