- Associated Press - Thursday, March 22, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - The young Tampa Bay Rays feel they have a chance to be more competitive than an offseason of trimming salary might suggest.

Proving it in the rugged AL East figures to be difficult, however manager Kevin Cash likes the idea that some people are already counting his team out.

“I think it’s great,” Cash said of the general reaction to a winter of change that’s included the departure of Evan Longoria, the face of the franchise for nearly a decade.

“But the expectations are not any lower from my point of view, or the players, who have taken time to sit down and think about what’s gone on,” Cash added. “Yes, there have been subtractions, but there’s also been some really good additions.”

In addition to trading Longoria to the San Francisco Giants in December, the Rays lost pitcher Alex Cobb to free agency before unloading a second starting pitcher, Jake Odorizzi, and sluggers Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza, Jr., during spring training.

Outside of acquiring veteran outfielder Denard Span in the Longoria trade, Tampa Bay will have little to show for the moves on the opening day roster.

General manager Erik Neander is confident, though, that a bevy of prospects added to a minor league system already teeming with talent will be vital to the resurgence of a club that made the playoffs four times in six seasons from 2008 to 2013.

Cash and Neander insist having an eye on the future doesn’t mean the Rays can’t be successful now.

Former All-Star outfielder Carlos Gomez was signed during spring training, third baseman Matt Duffy returns after missing all of 2017 while recovering from an Achilles injury, and first baseman/designated hitter C.J. Cron will be counted on to provide some power in the middle of the batting order.

“We have a young group, but we have a mature group that’s capable of handling some of the difficult decisions that are made in baseball,” said Cash, who is entering his fourth season as the Rays manager.

Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier initially was critical of some of the offseason moves that appeared to sacrifice the present for the future.

The defensive whiz’s stance has softened, however, and he says he’s focused on moving forward.

“It’s definitely the youngest team, I think, I’ll ever be a part of,” said Kiermaier, who’ll turn 28 on April 22. “But young guys can still play at a high level, especially with this youth movement going across the big leagues.”


Some things to know about the Rays, who are trying to end a stretch of four consecutive losing records, three of them under Cash:

BEST CASE: A young pitching staff, led by All-Star Chris Archer and supported by an improved defense anchored by Kiermaier, performs up to expectations - helping the budget-minded Rays close the gap between themselves and AL East rivals Boston and New York, who both made the playoffs a year ago.

WORST CASE: A slow start could become the answer to a lingering question of whether the front office is finished retooling the roster. Archer, closer Alex Colome and starter Nathan Eovaldi, who is resuming his career following Tommy John surgery, could be players attracting interest in potential trade deadline deals that garner prospects in return.

UNDER 30: The Rays enter the season with an impressive streak of 560 consecutive games started by a pitcher under the age of 30. With a projected four-man rotation of Archer, 29; Eovaldi, 28; Blake Snell, 25; and Jake Faria, 24, and several promising young starters in the minors, the streak figures to continue. Cash intends to use multiple relievers on floating “bullpen days” that replace a fifth starter.

FOUR IN A ROW: Archer will make his fourth consecutive opening day start, a franchise record. He also aiming for his fourth straight season with 200-plus innings pitched. And, after going 10-12 with a 4.07 ERA and 249 strikeouts in 2017, he’s looking to stop a streak of three consecutive seasons with a losing record.

WHO WILL STEP UP? Longoria was the only player remaining on the roster, who was part of all four Tampa Bay playoff appearances. He’s the club’s all-time leader in several categories, including home runs, and will be missed on and off the field. “I don’t think it’s fair for anybody to try to replace Evan Longoria for what he did on the field or in the clubhouse because that’s not going to happen overnight,” Cash said. Archer and Kiermaier are the likeliest candidates to fill the leadership void.


More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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