PORT CHARLOTTE — The chatter at the start of spring training is usually predictable.
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Who went on the best off-season adventure. Played the most golf. Bought the coolest truck, boat, drone or other toy. Has a new baby, or babe.
There's always group chorus of guys who — all together now — are in the best shape of their career.
And, the bingo card triple-square winner of realizing they put too much pressure on themselves last season, are committing to just going out to have fun this year and, you know, taking it day by day.
But as the Rays gather this week in Port Charlotte, there really will be a lot to talk about — quite often starting with hello, as 16 of the 63 players on the spring roster are new to the organization and 29 are in their first Tampa Bay big-league camp.
Having remade the look of the team with a steady stream of trades, signings and other roster manipulations that has gotten mixed reviews, Rays officials are confident they have a club that will play bigger than its $65-million-ish payroll and, with good health and fortune, can compete for their first playoff spot, or even winning season, since 2013.
And, over the next 6 ½ weeks, this is what we will be talking about:
1. Brad Miller's move to 2B
In trading Logan Forsythe for pitching prospect Jose De Leon, the Rays created an unexpected hole at second base. Their best solution is to move Miller, the same Brad Miller they decided last August couldn't handle shortstop and shifted to first base. The new plan is based on keeping his 30-homer lefty bat in the lineup while assuming he'll do better, or less worse, with more time and shorter throws at second, with the additional benefit of improving the defense at first, with Logan Morrison and potentially others.
Miller, who played 37 games (18 starts) at second for the Mariners in 2013-15, is said to be open to the move. If it doesn't work, the Rays would have to find ways to get Miller's bat in the lineup (1B, DH, maybe some SS) and turn to Tim Beckham and/or Nick Franklin at second.
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2. Ron Porterfield as spring MVP
The Rays typically don't allow their head athletic trainer to speak to the media, but if they did Porterfield would have a daily briefing with five key players coming off surgeries — SS Matt Duffy (left heel), Morrison (left wrist), C Wilson Ramos (right knee), OF Colby Rasmus (hip, core muscle), OF Steven Souza Jr. (left hip).
Heading into camp, Duffy, Morrison and Souza are expected to be ready for the April 2 opener, there's a chance Rasmus might need a little more time, Ramos is pushing for a May return at least to DH but that could slide into June, then later going behind the plate.
But we know a) the Rays tend to be conservative in bringing players back and b) setbacks can happen.
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3. Going Longo
The payoff for Evan Longoria's hard work last winter was one of his best overall seasons, as he hit .273 with 36 homers, 98 RBIs and an .840 OPS plus his usual sturdy defense at third base. The penalty, as it were, will be the questions this spring if, at age 31, he can do it again, or even better.
And though Longoria has said repeatedly he wants to play his whole career with the Rays, their recent struggles and his candid admission of being "upset" over the Forsythe trade will lead to questions over how happy he'll be given that, with an option, he is signed through 2023.
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4. Chemistry class
With all the new faces, and a couple others in different places, plus hitting coach Chad Mottola in his first full season, there not only will be a getting-to-know-you period but also learning-to-trust-you. Don't expect third-year manager Kevin Cash to try Joe Maddon-type stuff like costumes, live animals or magicians in the clubhouse, but some team-building exercises (even the straight-laced Yankees do them) might be a good idea.
There's some bonding that needs to be done.
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5. A matter of national pride
It's hard when seeing Chris Archer's exuberance over getting to pitch for Team USA in the March World Baseball Classic to not think it's a good idea. But at the least there will be a major disruption to the normal spring routine for Archer and closer Alex Colome (Dominican Republic), plus prospects Jose Alvarado (Venezuela) and De Leon (Puerto Rico), with the potential for worse in terms of in-season fatigue from pitching with max effort and intensity earlier than usual, or even injury.
6. Kiddie corner
The focus of camp is to get the 2017 team ready to compete. But a side benefit, at least the first few weeks, will be to get a sense of what the 2018 and 2019 teams may look like, as 15 of the Rays' top 30 prospects (per Baseball America) will be in camp, including potential impact players such as INF Willy Adames, 1B/OF Jake Bauers, 1B Casey Gillaspie, INF Daniel Robertson, OF Mallex Smith and pitchers Alvarado, De Leon, Jacob Faria, Taylor Guerrieri, Chih-Wei Hu, Ryne Stanek, Jaime Schultz.
7. Top o' the order
The Rays talked a lot last spring before deciding somewhat surprisingly to put Forsythe in the leadoff spot, and it worked out pretty well. Now they have to find another leading man. Speedy Kevin Kiermaier is a logical option to move up a spot, but they may want a righty swinger with Longoria hitting third and Cash preferring to alternate. If so, maybe Duffy? Or Souza? Or, sub-optimally, a platoon?
8. Alex the great
You could make a case one of the Rays' most important "additions" is a healthy Alex Cobb, who not only is set after a so-so September return from Tommy John surgery to regain his place near the top of the rotation but whose bulldog-like attitude and experience — in baseball and life — makes him a natural leader by example on the mound and in the clubhouse.
Archer has tried to fill that void in his own way, Cobb, in baseball vernacular, goes about it a little differently. Remember, had he not gotten hurt in spring 2015, Cobb was in talks to sign a long-term deal and already announced as the opening day starter.
Instead, with free agency looming he is a likely July trade candidate, which means his impact will be short term and possibly muted.
9. Taking the fifth
The top four spots in the rotation seem set, with only the order to be determined after Archer between Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and second-year lefty Blake Snell. Matt Andriese would seem the favorite for No. 5, but his 2-6, 6.79 showing over his final 10 starts last year was troubling. Erasmo Ramirez, if not needed in the pen, and Chase Whitley, another Tommy John veteran, are the other options. Expect De Leon to get a cursory look then a couple months at Triple-A.
10. Filling in some holes
Despite all the moves, the Rays still have some work to do before opening day. The bullpen was supposed to be a prime target for improvement but the only external additions thus far have been Shawn Tolleson, who had 35 saves for Texas in 2015 but a miserable (like 7.68 ERA miserable) 2016, and maybe Rule 5 pick Kevin Gadea, who has pitched only 10 games as high as the Class A level.
That leaves them counting a lot on Brad Boxberger regaining form, and Danny Farquhar. They've talked extensively about adding a right-handed bat to replace Forsythe, but to date the best they've done is Rickie Weeks on a non-roster deal.
Ideally that guy could share first with Morrison, though he's had some success vs. lefties. Though Ramos is an eventual upgrade, they could go half or most of the season with a catching corps of Curt Casali, Luke Maile, Michael McKenry and Seattle castoff Jesus Sucre.
Just sayin', but signing Matt Wieters could fill a couple of those spots.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.
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