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What to watch for as Spring Training approaches for the Rays

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ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 17: Mallex Smith #0 slaps hands with Brandon Lowe #35 of the Tampa Bay Rays after scoring on a single by Ji-Man Choi in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on September 17, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 17: Mallex Smith #0 slaps hands with Brandon Lowe #35 of the Tampa Bay Rays after scoring on a single by Ji-Man Choi in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on September 17, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) /
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Tampa Bay Rays
ARLINGTON, TX – SEPTEMBER 17: Mallex Smith #0 slaps hands with Brandon Lowe #35 of the Tampa Bay Rays after scoring on a single by Ji-Man Choi in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on September 17, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

Spring Training is right around the corner and the Tampa Bay Rays enter spring ball as contenders, not the laughing stock of baseball.

Let’s go back to around this time a year ago. The Tampa Bay Rays were making moves that the fanbase and media did not agree with. Moves that made some people, like MLB Network star and Sports Media icon Chris Russo proclaim that the team was not even trying to win! They were “tanking” and purposely trying to lose to save money and secure a better draft position.

90-wins and one huge experiment later, fans are juiced for this upcoming season and the media has shifted the Tampa Bay Rays into a pile of contenders, rather than pretenders.

When was the last time Tampa Bay Rays fans were this excited for baseball to start up again? Sure, there have always been core fans like myself, and the majority of people reading this who were always looking out their window into the cold (well, it’s Florida but stay with me) wintery bliss waiting for the sunshine and sunflower seeds to break out again.

This year though is different. Even the most casual Rays fans are excited to see what this season has to offer. Heck, even the national media who pays attention to baseball are interested to see what this season becomes in Tampa.

With that, comes more buzz around Spring Training. Who will make the club? Who will be relegated down to the minor leagues? Who shows flashes of potential for later on down the road?

Nathaniel Lowe is going to have a ton of eyes on him when Grapefruit League action gets underway. The 23-year-old prospect will have a chance to not only shine, and impress Tampa Bay Rays brass and fans alike, but have a chance to make the big league club barring any moves for an additional bat the rest of the offseason.

A year ago, Lowe spent 130 games in the minors, slashing for a line of .330/.416/.568 while clubbing 27 homers. Lowe got as high as triple-A in 2018, which he produced four homers and 16 RBI’s in 28 games. It is safe to say Rays fans are excited to see what their 13th best prospect will be able to do on the diamond this year. A season with playoff implications.

Jose De Leon will be another name to watch. The 26-year-old hurler is returning from Elbow Surgery, Leon has documented his progress on social media, showing fans that despite the May surgery, Leon is already throwing off the mound ahead of Spring Training.

Brent Honeywell, arguably the best farmhand for the Rays, also underwent surgery last season. For Honeywell, it was Tommy John. He was injured in Port Charlotte last February.  I am no doctor, but if De Leon is already throwing off the bump, I would say that is a good sign for Honeywell. These two pitchers returning from injury will be under a microscope this Spring Training, as fans try to find out if they’re arms they can count on the be used during the season, and hopeful playoff push.

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Austin Meadows is one of the biggest reasons to watch this Rays club in Spring Training. Meadows is already penciled into the starting right field slot. Tampa Bay acquired the 23-year-old outfielder in the Chris Archer trade, that sent Archer to the Pirates this past trade deadline. Last season, Meadows logged 178 Major League plate appearances. In that time, Austin Meadows hit for a .287-average and drove in 17-runs while pushing six balls over the fence. Meadows hopes to sharpie his name into the right field spot for 2019.

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Spring Training as a whole, can be a bit of a drag for fans–much less for the players–the games do not count, there are too many of them and most the players you care about only log a few innings. For the Tampa Bay Rays though, this Spring will provide amazing storylines to follow leading up to Opening Day.

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