The Tampa Bay Rays enter the 2017 season with a mix of veterans and new faces. For them, the focus is on improving upon a dreadful 2016 season. Competing with big spenders like the Boston Red Sox means a division win might not be in the cards. That shouldn’t be their main focus though. Spring training has begun, with players getting a chance to prove themselves once again.
With games underway, the Rays will be able to see new faces. Do they fit into this teams plans or is this simply a pit stop in their career? For the veterans, it’s another chance to show they have what it takes to succeed at the major league level. Whether through injury (Steven Souza Jr.) or inconsistent play (Tim Beckham, Curt Casali), there’s plenty to keep an eye on this spring.
Simply put, this roster boasts plenty of players to watch. From veterans Evan Longoria, Kevin Kiermaier and Chris Archer to newbies such as Rickie Weeks, there are lots of interesting guys to see. We narrowed the list down to the three listed below.
Rickie Weeks: With Logan Forsythe traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Rays were looking for a versatile player to split time with Brad Miller at second base. Enter Weeks.
After bouncing around the minor leagues since 2014, the 34-year-old is getting an opportunity to prove himself again. This time, however, it’s near his hometown of Altamonte Springs, Florida. Maybe a little home cooking is what’s needed to revive a stalled career?
Early signs in spring training are good, as he’s towards the top of the team leaderboard in multiple categories. This includes RBIs, hits, runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and overall average. If that pace keeps up, Weeks could be the perfect fit near the top of the Rays lineup. Just think. A 3, 4, 5 of Weeks, Longoria and Miller would pose quite the triple threat for opposing pitchers.
Provided he makes the team, Weeks has the ability to make a difference for the Rays this year. Whether he does or not is up to him, but he’s certainly one to watch here in March.
Jesus Sucre: The team is expected to have a competition deciding who starts the season behind the plate. Offseason acquisition Wilson Ramos will be the starter upon his probable July return from surgery. Until then, the battle is between Luke Maile, Curt Casali and the aforementioned Sucre.
The former Seattle Mariners prospect has upside, though his recent injury issues are concerning. His 31 hits and 14 RBI’s in 109 at bats with AAA Tacoma showed his offensive potential. Couple that with the five RBI’s and 12 hits he had in his September call-up to the Mariners and he can produce runs.
Once a highly touted prospect, Sucre sustained a broken fibula and sprained ankle playing Venezuelan winter ball in late 2015. That put the brakes on his development, as he was sidelined until July 2016. While his numbers weren’t horrible, the Mariners decided it was time to move on. So they did, trading the 28-year-old to the Rays for a player to be named later or cash in early February 2017.
Now, the question is can Sucre produce like he did late last season? That is something to watch down the stretch. Right now, it looks like he might have a slight edge over Casali. That’s based on a slightly higher batting average (.500) and slugging percentage (1.250). If that continues, Rays fans might have a catching tandem worth getting excited about.
Nick Franklin: One of last season’s breakout players, Franklin made the most of his second chance at the major league level. He was impressive both at the plate and on the basepaths. His .270 average in 60 games was solid, as were his 26 RBI’s and 47 hits. Look at his .443 slugging percentage and six homers though and it’s easy to see why the Rays wanted him in the July 2014 blockbuster trade involving David Price.
He also displayed some speed on the base paths, going 6 of 7 in the stolen base department. That made him a threat anywhere, something the Rays had been lacking for years. As the 2017 season approaches, Rays fans want to see the Franklin of 2016. Not the one who stumbled and bumbled his way through 2015.
Still in his prime at 26 years old, Franklin might be getting into his comfort zone now. Early returns prove my point, as he’s third on the team with a .538 average and seven hits in six games this spring. If he keeps this pace up, no one will be asking about Carl Crawford or Desmond Jennings. They’ll instead be applauding the Rays for making a worthwhile trade two short years ago. One that might just turn the fortunes of this franchise around.
There you have it Rays fans. A team that stumbled its way to a horrid 68-94 record last year has plenty of promise moving forward. The three players mentioned above could be the difference makers between a competitive team and one going through the motions.
Which Rays players are you watching in Spring Training? Let us know in the comment section below.