PORT CHARLOTTE – It is spring. And, golly, don't you feel good?
It never rains in the spring. No one runs out of gas. No one is hungry, or needs new shoes or a better mitt. No one pops up, and no one strikes out, and every ground ball bounces fair and true. The pitchers have no ERAs, and the hitters are all feared in the power alleys.
In the spring, even a last-place team can feel giddy about the road ahead.
Take, for instance, the Tampa Bay Rays, whose pitchers and catchers report today. Monday, players informally went through their paces preparing for spring training, loose and serious, as if to say that, officially, they ain't afraid of no ghosts. In the clubhouse,
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players talked about how they were 80-82, as if last year was the aberration and not the year before.
And outside, with his back to the field, Kevin Cash talked as if his team was about to seize the day. Or shock the world, whichever comes first.
So, Kev, do you expect to be playing meaningful games in September?
Cash leans into the microphone and talked quickly, the optimism leaking out of his pores.
“We expect to be playing games in October,” Cash said. Now, that would ensure the playoffs, because the regular-season has only one game slated for October. If the Rays are playing games, plural, it would mean the post season. “That's the goal. We're confident with what we've done in the off-season. We're confident with the core guys and the way they finished the year.”
Cash is hopeful that Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Corey Dickerson and Kevin Kiermaier finished the year. It is as if he refuses to consider that they will not simply take up where they left off.
“You look at what our strengths are,” Cash said. “Starting pitching was our strength coming into last year. We still feel the same way. It was unfortunate that we had a bump in the road and we all had it happen at one time. It was a tough 25 days to overcome. We're optimistic with our pitchers and with our position core.
“There are a lot of guys in that clubhouse with a lot of pride. Not only with their individual performances, but the performance of the team. I don't think anyone felt good about anything that last series in Texas. I think it's motivated some guys to work on some things they needed to work on. We all going to hear that message as the players start coming in.”
Oh, there are questions, obviously. Alex Cobb is speaking optimistically again, as if his shoulder is aces. If so, he should blend with Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Blake Snell in a pretty good rotation. The bullpen could be better if Brad Boxberger is healthy and Shawn Tolleson can bounce back to go with Alex Colome. Can Brad Miller have another 30 home run season? Can Evan Longoria have another year like last one. Can a strikeout-prone team cut down on its whiffs?
That's the problem with a last-place team. Success is a jigsaw puzzle with corner pieces missing. A lot of things have to fit for the team to be significantly better. With the Rays, it's like tossing that jigsaw puzzle into the air and hoping it comes down assembled.
The problem, of course, is that the Rays buy bargain brands, and as such, are less likely to get a complete player. This one strikes out too much and that one doesn't field well enough and this one gives up home runs and the other one loses focus.
So can a turnaround happen? Sure. In 2007, the Rays won only 66 games, two less than last year. But in 2008, the Rays won 97. That's tied for seventh among the biggest improvement from one season to the next. The best? In 1998, the expansion Diamondbacks won 65 games. The next year? They won 100.
Last year, it was just the opposite. The team finished 12 games behind 2015. That's a lot of ground to make up to even be mediocre. Now consider that every other team in the AL East had a winning record.
And so you wonder: Can Chris Archer split the 10 games he was under .500? Can Steven Souza cut down on his 159 strikeouts? Can the team replace Logan Forsythe and, while they're at it,can it find a first baseman? Can Kevin Kiermaier stay healthy? How soon can catcher Wilson Ramos get back behind the plate?
Can the Rays run the bases better? Can they play better defense? Can their pitchers keep the ball inside the park?
A lot of things have to go right.
Here in the spring, however, there is hope. There are answers. There are expectations.