Spring Training Notes: Rays’ Cuba Roster Announced, Snell Likely Back in Durham

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Infielder Taylor Motter is among the former Bulls players travelling to Cuba for the Rays’ exhibition game against the Cuban National Team later this month.

The Rays announced their roster for the exhibition game in Cuba later this month on Tuesday, March 15. The initial 28-man squad features a handful of 2015 Durham Bulls: pitchers Matt Andriese, Andrew Bellatti, Alex Colome, Matt Moore, Enny Romero and Drew Smyly, catcher Curt Casali, infielders Tim Beckham, Nick Franklin, Taylor Motter and Richie Shaffer, and outfielder Mikie Mahtook.

The Rays’ roster was reportedly expanded to 32-33 players for the Cuba trip, but no additions have been announced yet.

Cuban-born Rays minor league outfielder Dayron Varona also highlights the initial roster for the exhibition against the Cuban National team on March 22, in Havana, Cuba. Several Rays players reportedly lobbied for Varona’s inclusion so that he could see family and return to his home country for the first time since he defected in 2013. Varona reached the Double-A level in 2015 after playing eight seasons in the Cuban National Series.

It was previously announced that President Barack Obama will attend the exhibition game, along with representatives from Major League Baseball, including Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre. This week the MLB also announced that Derek Jeter will be in attendance, and will help with the kids’ baseball skills camp during the trip.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin wrote about younger players who are blocked on the major league roster by the Rays’ offseason moves, like outfielder Mikie Mahtook. Mahtook hit nine home runs and 19 RBIs with a .295 batting average in 41 games at the big league level last season, which put him on many projected Opening Day rosters at the beginning of the offseason.

Mahtook instead looks to be headed back to Durham after the Rays added Corey Dickerson, Steve Pearce and Logan Morrison, and got Desmond Jennings back from a knee injury. Durham Bulls fans will be excited to have Mahtook back at Triple-A, though. Mahtook hit .305 over his last 32 games with the Bulls to bump his batting average up to .249 on the season, and finished with 96 hits, the third-most on the team.

Reigning USA Today and Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Blake Snell was optioned to minor league camp on Tuesday, and will likely start the season with the Bulls. Snell rode a breakout year all the way from High-A to Triple-A last season, and will look to impress the Rays’ brass early with similar production in Durham.

Boog Powell and his spectacular catches may have moved to Seattle, but outfielder Jaff Decker could fill that highlight reel void for Durham Bulls fans. Decker robbed former Rays prospect Reid Brignac of a three-run home run with a leaping grab earlier this week.

A trio of Rays’ starting pitching prospects went up against Toronto’s offense-heavy lineup on Saturday, March 12, led by Taylor Guerrieri. The right-hander went right through the heart of the Blue Jays lineup, which included Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki, only allowing a leadoff single. In the third inning he struggled a little and gave up a three-run homer to Bautista.

Right-hander Jake Faria was next, and he worked 2 and 1/3 hitless innings before taking a seat as Bautista came up. Faria reportedly lobbied to stay in and face the Blue Jays slugger, but yielded the mound to Jaime Schultz. Schultz allowed a walk in 1 and 2/3 innings on the hill to round out the young trio’s work.

Starting pitcher Drew Smyly continues to dazzle fans on the hill, going 4 and 2/3 innings with four strikeouts on Tuesday, March 15, against Philadelphia. Smyly, who rehabbed with the Bulls in 2015, has strung together a few good starts already this spring. He has 10 strikeouts in 10 innings pitched, and only five hits and one walk allowed.

Matt Moore, another Rays player who rehabbed with the Bulls last season, has also been impressive so far this spring. Moore went 3 and 2/3 innings against a Yankees split squad, and didn’t allow a baserunner after two singles in the first inning. Moore has only allowed one run and three hits in 5 and 2/3 innings so far.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin also wrote about some of the questions still left for the Rays to solve this spring. Among them, Topkin wondered if Motter, Nick Franklin or prospect Daniel Robertson could be called upon to try their hand at shortstop with the big league club while Brad Miller works through throwing issues that have plagued him this spring. He also questioned if outfielders Desmond Jennings or Brandon Guyer could be traded to clear up the logjam in the outfield, or even if Steven Souza, Jr. could be sent to Durham to start the year.

ESPN Insider’s Buster Olney talked with Kevin Kiermaier (subscription only) about how he visualizes his big defensive plays in the outfield before they happen. Kiermaier practices making catches and throws in odd positions to be better prepared for those awkward plays, he said. If you have an Insider subscription, Olney does a good job emphasizing how unique Kiermaier’s defensive approach is.

Notes: The Rays officially named Chris Archer their starting pitcher for Opening Day. Archer started on Opening Day last season, but only after Alex Cobb was scratched with an injury… In other starting pitcher news, Matt Moore was named the starter for the exhibition game against the Cuban National Team… Starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi got a start in minor league spring training on Wednesday, but don’t expect him to start off the season in the minors. The Rays had an off day, so Odorizzi had to go back to his minor league roots to get his work in for the day. Archer and Rays manager Kevin Cash were in attendance to watch Odorizzi… David Carpenter got his first action in a Rays uniform from the mound, pitching a scoreless inning on Tuesday, March 15, against Philadelphia… The Rays all shaved their heads for “Cut for a Cure” to benefit the Pediatric Cancer Foundation. Chris Archer and Taylor Motter opted to donate money instead of cut their signature hairstyles.

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