Nobody can give a perspective on a team quite like someone who's living and dying with every pitch. I can give you that perspective on the Orioles. Not so much for their opponent in the opening series of the season, the Rays, who went through quite a bit of turnover both in the front office and among the players over the offseason.
To find out how Rays fans are feeling about all of this, and the upcoming season, I got in touch with Danny Russell, my counterpart over at the SB Nation Rays blog, DRaysBay. I gave him some thoughts on the Orioles as well, which if you're curious you can read here. And now on to the Rays:
1. The Rays rotation has some names in it that aren't exactly household names to start the year. When do you expect the players on the mend to return, and do you think the group that's there can hold it together until then?
Danny: I'm not sure the Rays ever have household names, at least not for long. Our only exception is Evan Longoria, and while he's an incredible asset, he's not exactly earning All-Star nominations on a consistent basis.
That said, out of necessity, this team thrives on an underdog mindset. They're going to scrap along until big names like Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly are able to return. By my own guesses, return dates for each are tentatively April 25th and April 14th, but Cobb could be delayed. If the Rays can get just one of them back in April the team should tread water in the AL East.
2. Outside of the rotation, there are some new names to the Rays too. Which of your additions do you think will make the biggest impact on the season?
Danny: Steven Souza Jr. is an older prospect, due to dropping out of the game and returning again, but he's primed to be impressive for the Rays in right field this season.
The team is promoting him straight to the majors, skipping the prospect contract status conversation going on around Kris Bryant right now, or Gregory Polanco last year, or Wil Myers the year before that. Souza is necessary, the Rays are batting him second and expect him to be something like a 20/20 outfielder with plus corner defense.
In other words, Souza is a better Wil Myers.
Souza's character issues dissipated after a come-to-Jesus a few years back (Myers had a long rumor trail of not taking instruction well), prefers playing in right field (Myers wanted center and wasn't getting it from the Rays), has great speed for the base paths (Myers relied on unconventional slides), and looks to have real game power (which never clicked for Myers in Tampa Bay).
It's a gamble for the Rays to trade a former top prospect for an unheralded 25-year old, but if Souza can live up to his highlight reel potential, the fans will be grateful.
3. Both the O's and the Rays were in the front office rumor mill this offseason, though only the Rays made any changes. What kind of impression did the new group make on you?
Danny: The Rays lost the face of the front office, but the group is largely unchanged. Andrew Friedman's departure is perceptively a blow to the franchise, but in his place the President moved in to the General Manager's role and the brain trust beneath Friedman stayed in tact.
Some of what followed after Friedman left seemed to be trades he would not have made, sending off Wil Myers being one of them, trading away Joel Peralta from the bullpen another, but all-in-all the moves have been prototypical for this front office.
4. Did spring training hit the Rays with any surprises, good or bad? What player's performance was most unexpected to you?
Danny: The biggest surprises were injury related. Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly have tendinitis in the forearm and shoulder, respectively. Alex Colome, the projected fifth starter, suffered from a severe case of pneumonia, and two of the depth pieces behind him (Enny Romero and Burch Smith) are starting the season on the Disabled List, with Smith needing Tommy John.
The Rays went out and got Erasmo Ramirez to tandem with Matt Andriese in the fourth starter/swing man roles to buoy this rotation, but it's been enough injuries to move the needle on the Rays from contender to question mark, and that's truly unfortunate.
5. ESPN rounded up the opinions of 88 of their experts and exactly one of them picked the Rays to win the AL East this year. Does that sound right to you? Where do you see things ending up for this year's edition of the Rays?
Danny: It really depends on health. If there had been no injuries, I'd have pegged this team at 85-wins comfortably with an ability to edge that up into the 90-win range. You could average that to, say, 87-wins. But with so many pitchers injured and an AL East bloodbath on the way in April, this team will need to break even in the first month for that to become a reality.
The Rays work from a standpoint of run prevention, but that strategy is at risk in the coming weeks. If the offense can rise up and balance the injury weaknesses, this is still a competitive team. As for whether they win the division, I believe the AL East is close enough this season that there is not a runaway favorite like there might be in the NL East.
Do you feel threatened by the Rays this year? How many wins do you think the O's will walk away with when this series is over?
Editor's Note: SB Nation is hosting a $6,000 one-day Fantasy Baseball league for MLB Opening Day on FanDuel. It's $5 to join and first place wins $1,000 and four tickets to a game. Enter now!