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.
With roughly a week of spring training in the books, perhaps no Rays player, or baseball player in general, made as loud of a debut this season as Corey Dickerson. The recently acquired left fielder hit a 569-foot home run (yes, you read that correctly) in his second at-bat of the spring.
Dickerson’s HR landed on the roof of Charlotte Sports Park’s clubhouse building—rolling an estimated 569′ from home. pic.twitter.com/q4ZLKxp51S
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) March 3, 2016
“I kind of wanted to see some pitches that second at-bat,” Dickerson told the Tampa Tribune. “Luckily, I got a good pitch to hit and I tried to be short to the ball and it worked out.”
The Rays also made headlines in the national media when they signed former Rays and Bulls hero Dan Johnson to a minor league deal. But the slugging first baseman isn’t back to add another power bat to the lineup, he’s in minor league camp learning to become a knuckleball pitcher.
That might seem odd, but the Rays did hire former knuckleballer Charlie Haeger as the minor league pitching coordinator this past offseason. They also added knuckleball pitcher Eddie Gamboa on a minor league deal earlier in the offseason, so the move for Johnson isn’t completely out of left field.
Johnson told the Tampa Tribune he had minor league offers as a first baseman and DH, but waited them out because of the interest the Rays showed in having him as a knuckleball pitcher. He has thrown the knuckleball his entire life and threw bullpen a few times with the Yankees Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2013.
Desmond Jennings has also come back strong, with three doubles in his first three games. Jennings has fought the injury bug for most of his major league career, but still has high expectations attached to his name as a former top prospect in the Rays system. This small sample has to give Rays fans a glimmer of hope that Jennings can harness that potential this season, and he will be one of the many Rays to keep eye on in Spring Training.
The Rays best outing thus far was Saturday, March 5, when they totaled 17 hits and 10 runs to beat the Orioles 10-6. Drew Smyly got the start on the hill and struck out three batters in two innings without allowing a baserunner. Brad Miller, Kevin Kiermaier and Curt Casali all had multi-hit games.
One position battle to keep an eye on is first base between Steve Pearce, Logan Morrison and James Loney. Morrison and Pearce have both played outfield, while Loney hasn’t played anything except first base and DH since 2007. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times writes that he expects Loney to be traded, and offers some ideas as to what the Rays lineup could look like on Opening Day.
Blake Snell gave up four hits, including a home run, and had three earned runs in a loss on March 2, but said he was happy with the outing. Snell has been working on his change up and let one go right down the middle to allow that home run, but said regaining his consistency and trust in the pitch is why he will continue to work on it in Spring Training.
The Rays have made 14 errors in Spring Training, the most in the MLB. Shortstop Brad Miller had his third error of the spring in Wednesday’s game, and is doing extra infield work to correct his throwing and fielding issues, he told the Tampa Tribune.
Notes: Outfielder Steven Souza his spring training debut on Wednesday, after an injury sidelined him for most of the first week of spring games. He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, but got back in action after travelling with the team and not playing earlier in the week… Starting pitcher Matt Moore allowed a leadoff home run, but came back to retire six batters in a row in his spring debut… Former first round pick Taylor Guerrieri worked two innings on the mound and gave up an RBI single to Boston’s David Ortiz, but was otherwise unscathed in his outing… The Rays plan to work an infield of third baseman Evan Longoria, second baseman Logan Forsythe and shortstop Brad Miller to help Miller learn the Rays’ defensive shifts… Catcher Justin O’Conner was the first Rays player to be optioned to minor league camp from the big league camp. O’Conner is currently sitting out with a herniated disc.
The National Anthem marks the beginning of every sporting event in the United States. It’s been known to elicit the strongest emotions in people and make grown men cry. If you think you are patriotic enough to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” before a Bulls game, you’re invited to audition from 8:30 to 10 a.m. Saturday, March 12, at the DBAP. But before you come try out, check out the pro tips we assembled to make your audition rock.
Keep It Tight
Aspiring anthem performers only have one minute and 30 seconds to impress the judges, so don’t spend too much time showing them how many different notes you can hit on “O’er the land of the freeeeeee.”
Singers have to stick to the traditional National Anthem style, which means you can’t throw in any false finishes or added verses. Speaking of added verses, did you know that Francis Scott Key’s original lyrics continue after the end of our “traditional” version for three more verses? I guess they condensed it down for some odd reason. I mean who wouldn’t want to listen to a six minute national anthem?
We Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice
Please, please, please practice before you come perform the national anthem for our judges. Memorization is required, so make sure you know the words and the correct order. Don’t be like The Answer.
Simple Is Better
We’re sure you really do sound like Lady Gaga or Beyonce in your shower, but for the audition just keep it simple. We don’t have record label talent scouts in the audience, so just be yourself.
Perform The Correct Country’s National Anthem
None of that “Oh, Canada” stuff.
Today marks the Bulls’ first off day of the 2015 season, as after the first 25 games the team sits at a solid 14-11, 1.0 game behind Charlotte for the IL South Division lead. Durham opened the season 3-6, which incredibly, was the team’s worst nine-game start in the franchise’s 18-year Triple-A history. Since then the team has been one of the best in the IL though, going 11-5 over its last 16 games. Since we have no baseball to watch today, let’s take a look at some of the prevailing themes of the first month of the 2015 campaign.
Thanks in large part to the Tampa Bay Rays putting a major-league leading 14 players on the disabled list so far this season, the Bulls have undergone 35 roster moves already this year. Durham has used 34 different players in just 25 games, and to put it in perspective, used 45 players in 2014 and 43 players in 2013. Seven of the 24 players on Durham’s active roster were not on the team’s roster on Opening Day, and eight players have already been promoted to the Rays this year.
Entering today, Durham ranks fourth in the IL with a 2.98 ERA. That number has received a boost over the team’s last 16 games, as the Bulls have held their opponents to three runs or fewer 13 times in that span. Of the four pitchers who have been in Durham’s rotation since the start of the season, three have a sub-3.00 ERA, led by southpaw Scott Diamond, who ranks 5th in the league with a 1.67 ERA to accompany his 3-0 record.
Despite posting just the 9th-best team batting average in the league (.253), the Bulls rank 5th in the IL with a .337 on-base percentage. Durham’s 101 walks at the plate are the 2nd-most on the circuit, trailing only Indianapolis (102), while Vince Belnome is tied for the minor league-lead with 22 walks drawn this season.
The Bulls have played 15 road games so far this season, the 2nd-most of any International League team. After Durham’s three-game home series this week against Buffalo, the team hits the road for another six games, meaning 21 of its first 34 contests will come away from the DBAP. Still, over the Bulls are 9-6 in away games this season, highlighted by a 5-2 road trip this past week.
North and South
After opening the season with 18 straight contests against the South Division, the Bulls are in the midst of a 34-game stretch against North Division foes. Of the 41 games Durham will play against the IL North this season, 34 of those contests will be played over a 35-day span from April 27 to May 31st. So far, the Bulls are 9-9 against in-division rivals, and 5-2 against the North.