Could Rays seek flexibility with a ‘new’ offense?

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – If there is one component of the Tampa Bay Rays offense that could change, this might be the running game. After all, the Rays were on the top of most offensive categories of the American League last season and look to put up similar numbers.

Among league leaders in batting average, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, and walks, the Rays, collectively, could be more aggressive on the bases. That’s not necessarily calculated in the increased number of stolen bases. Rather, the dynamics include taking an extra base and running smartly on the bases.

In 2023, the Rays pilfered 160 bases and that was second best in the league. Only the Kansas City Royals (163) stole more bases. The Rays’ total was just ahead of Cleveland (151 steals), who was third in the American League.

At the same time, there could be an effort underway to keep defenses aware of the Rays’ offensive capabilities. That could mean playing “small ball” to keep defenses guessing, and a complement to the power game.

Here in spring training, the Rays have not demonstrated a capacity to “manufacture” runs and create opportunities. The principal reason is the nature of spring games. Starters usually get two to three at-bats, no strategy is employed, and principal players sporadically dot the line-up card. Until manager Kevin Cash establishes a standard, every day, regular-season line-up and employs various options, the Rays’ aggressive offensive nature will likely remain a secret.

“The manager is the one who manages and what he puts on is what we have to do,” said first baseman Yandy Diaz, who led the American League with a .330 batting average, hit 22 homers of knocked in 78 runs. “If he doesn’t like to bunt, then we’re not going to bunt. We’re going to find a way to score some runs, and that’s our job. (Cash) is the one who tells us what to do.  We just listen to what he says.”

Last season, the Rays were one of only three team AL teams to score more than 800 runs, and Texas (881) slightly outscored Tampa Bay’s 860 runs scored. The other AL team to score more than 800 was Houston (827).

Coming into the 2024 season, the Rays have a balance on both sides of the plate. Aside from the stellar season turned by the right-handed hitting Diaz, second baseman Brandon Lowe (recovering from a knee fracture and back issues) says he’s healthy. Lowe is coming off a season in which he appeared in 109 games (21 home runs, 68 RBIS) but slammed 39 homers in a completely healthy season of 2021. A left-handed hitter, Lowe is completed by Diaz and right-handed hitting infielder Isaac Paredes, who hit .250 in 143 games, slammed 31 homers, and drove in 98 runs.

That offense could get a boost from a resurgent Randy Arozarena, who arrived in camp bulk-up and told reporters he did so to gain late-season endurance. Because his batting average has declined each year in succession since 2021, Arozarena said he addressed special care to ensure late season productivity.

In that capacity, he hopes to replicate the achievements of the past. Arozarena earned MVP in the 2020 ALCS and voted the American League rookie of the year in 2021. A rare achievement in separate seasons and the Rays are counting on his production late in the season and, potentially, into the post-season.

All of which suggests the power game will electrify Tropicana Field. To add creativity and unfamiliarity to the opposition, the added dimension of an aggressive running game could be added.

Or, maybe not.

“They like to run,” Cash said emphatically of his players. “They don’t have to embrace it. When they get on first base, they enjoy running and always look to run.”

On the road again … both the Rays and Boston Red Sox will be the first teams to engage in Major League Baseball’s 2024 journey outside of North America. This weekend, for games on Saturday and Sunday, the Rays and Sox commence MLB’s World Tour with contests at Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. This is an opportunity for the Rays’ number one prospect, shortstop Junior Caminero to play before his home countrymen.

“Really excited for the D. R. series,” said Cash. “This is coming out in a pretty good time. Spring training can be long, and this will break it up for us. We have many players excited to go over there. A change of scenery will be nice.”

The series is the first of three international sets. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres open their regular season later this month in Seoul, South Korea. In mid-June, the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets have a two-game series in London.

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