Spring training games have now been underway for over a week for the Tampa Bay Rays. The spring is used not only as a time to shake off the rust in time for the regular season, but it is also used as a time for individual players to make a name for themselves. With that in mind, what has spring training told us about the Rays so far?
Kevin Kiermaier‘s bat is for real
Last year, Kevin Kiermaier truly broke out as a prospect. He has always been known as a defensive whiz in centerfield, something that gave him a high floor as a 4th/5th outfielder type. But, Kiermaier’s bat had never been anything to get too excited about. Then last year, he posted a .307/.370/.434 (134 wRC+) in 417 PA with Double-A Montgomery before moving up to Triple-A for the last month and a half of the season, where he posted a .263/.338/.423 (112 wRC+). The stats were great, but at the same time Kiermaier had never sustained that kind of success with the bat, so people are worried he won’t produce the same results again. However, this spring Kiermaier has looked great, both statistically and mechanically. He has put up a .364/.417/.636 line so far, and while that is a small 12 PA sample size, his swing’s mechanics have been solid. Kiermaier is not ever going to be a huge power guy, but his swing does a great job of taking advantage of what power he can produce. He does a really good job of getting his lower half into the ball, and also keeps his hands back until the last possible second, both two great ways to generate power into a swing. He also does a good job of keeping his bat in the strikezone for a long time which will produce high contact rates down the road. Overall, his swing looks awesome mechanically, and as long as his plate approach stays sound, there is no reason to think his bat can’t play in the big leagues very soon. Kiermaier might have a better shot at getting a roster spot this spring than we thought, though of course it all comes down to how the Rays internally value both Kiermaier and current center fielder Desmond Jennings.
The Rays value Cesar Ramos quite a bit
Coming into the spring, it wasn’t clear if Ramos even had a spot with the Rays. He wasn’t great in 2014, posting a 4.18 ERA, but he was only put into games in which the Rays were either way up or way down. Joe Maddon rarely trusted him to get a key out. Where he was valued is the fact that he could throw multiple innings out of the bullpen, and this is where the Rays viewed him as a solid addition to the team last year. But here is the surprising part of the Rays’ valuation of Ramos-they are giving him a real chance to win the 5th starter job this spring. He started Thursday’s game vs. the New York Yankees, throwing 2.2 innings as the Rays are attempting to stretch him out. With the Rays having so many options to start games, they must think highly of Ramos if they are giving him a chance alongside young prospects like Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome and Nate Karns. It is shocking to see that they value Ramos so much after a mediocre year in the bullpen last year, but Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon wouldn’t think so highly of him if they didn’t have a good reason. Given this information, I would be very surprised if Ramos was left off the 25-man roster, even if he does not win the 5th starter job.
The Rays are great at making pitchers better
We have seen time and time again where the Rays develop numerous pitchers who then establish themselves in the big leagues. But one thing that gets overlooked is how good the Rays are at developing pitchers that are already in the big leagues. We have seen just that this spring. Chris Archer, who has largely relied on his fastball-slider combination to get outs, is making huge strides with his changeup. He threw a few good changeups in his start on Tuesday, and it appears as if the pitch is becoming more and more consistent. The Rays have worked hard on making it a solid pitch, and it appears as if it will become on sooner rather than later.
Another pitcher who has been developing his own pitches is Jake McGee. Last year McGee threw 90% fastballs. Even though his fastball is outstanding, he isn’t going to get away with throwing just that pitch. He threw four curveballs in his outing Tuesday, even getting David Ortiz to swing through one, which shows he is further developing the pitch. The Rays are working hard on McGee, and the curveball has already gotten better this spring. With it even as a passable big league pitch, McGee will be much better in 2014.
Lastly, Alex Cobb has been working hard to further develop his curveball, and it has looked pretty good so far this spring. He usually relies on his nasty split-change to get outs, but in his start Friday Cobb used his curveball in this role, and was fairly successful. He still needs to work on tightening the spin to make it less obvious to hitters, but he locates it well and it already looks much better than last year. It’s a scary thought to think that Cobb might develop a third great pitch to his already solid arsenal. Overall, these are three examples that show that the Rays can take pitchers that are already guaranteed a big league spot and make them even better. It is often overlooked, but this is something that makes the team better year in and year out, and they have shown that they can do it once again this spring.
The Rays have only been playing games for a little over week, but it has already told us plenty. As games continue on, we will learn more and more about how the Rays value their players and who is in contention for the final few roster spots. Keep following the Rays’ spring games, it is often the best time to find out information about the team.