Storylines From the Tampa Bay Rays’ First Four Spring Games

By Peter M. Gordon

Since losing their first game this spring the Rays have won 2 and tied 1. It’s too early in the spring to make any definitive conclusions, but they are looking like a team that will contend for the top of their division. Here are some trends emerging that are worth noting:

Expect fierce competition for the last three roster spots: Barring injury, the Rays’ starting lineup and key backups are set. The Gold Glove-finalist quartet of Loney, Zobrist, Escobar, and Longoria will be in the field.  It’s almost certain that the outfield of David DeJesus, Desmond Jennings, and Wil Myers will start the season in the outfield. Matt Joyce looks like the starting DH. Finally, Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina will catch. That leaves three non-pitcher open spots: an infield backup, an outfield backup, and the 25th man. Sean Rodriguez appears to have the inside track for one spot. The Rays demonstrated their high regard for Rodriguez by signing him to a $1.47 million contract for 2014. He’s been with the team since 2010, can play multiple positions, and can even serve as an emergency catcher. If the Rays keep Rodriguez, that leaves several players to compete for the last two spots. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe Maddon waits until the end of spring to make the final decision.

Kevin Kiermaier will be given every chance to make the team: The Rays loved his defense enough to play him in both game 163 and the wild card game last year. His speed enables him to pinch run. It would be unusual for the Rays to keep a rookie as a bench player to start the season, but if Kiermaier shows he’s ready to hit major league pitching, he may make the team.

Jerry Sands merits a closer look: Sands is a 26 year-old journeyman who the Rays picked up on waivers from Pittsburgh last December. He’s a right handed hitter who can play left field, right field, and first base. He’s played in all four games and is hitting .429 with one homer. Long-time Rays prospect Brandon Guyer should still be considered the favorite for the right handed outfield platoon spot. If Sands keeps hitting at this clip, though, he could force the Rays to make a tough decision.

Expect the pitching to be strong again this year: The Rays haven’t worked any pitcher very much in the first four games. Still, 23 pitchers have ERAs of 0.00. Grant Balfour, the presumed closer, has looked great and already has a win. The Rays have lots of strong candidates for their open bullpen spot and Jeremy Hellickson‘s rotation spot while he is on the shelf.

There’s still nearly a month between today and Opening Day, and of course injuries always are a wild card. After four games, though, we can say the Rays are in good shape for the season.