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NICK CAFARDO I SUNDAY BASEBALL NOTES

Tampa Bay Rays aren’t willing to concede AL East to Red Sox and Yankees

Rays manager Kevin Cash will go with three full-time starters in his rotation, as well as two “openers.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash will go with three full-time starters in his rotation, as well as two “openers.”(STEVE NESIUS/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE)

Watching the Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff throwing bullpen sessions and interacting with one another in a positive and fun way this past week, you get the sense the Rays don’t think of themselves as third wheels in the American League East.

Listen, we understand that the Red Sox and Yankees are favored to be 1-2 in the division. The Rays are going to hear that all season. They’re going to feel it at times, as they face the Red Sox and Yankees a total of 38 times, but as Rays manager Kevin Cash points out, “This is a special group of players. There’s so much positive energy that these guys exhibit on a daily basis. We had that last year and you can see we have it again this year. We do what we do and as our guys mature and gain more experience, we’re going to go out there and compete with everything we have.”

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The Rays were a 90-win team a year ago. They added two major character players in catcher Mike Zunino and veteran righthander Charlie Morton. The analytically-driven Rays likely didn’t consider the character aspect of the two acquisitions, feeling in Morton they got a sometimes dominating pitcher and in Zunino a power-hitting catcher (albeit one who hit .201 in 2018) who handles pitchers well. And the two will likely take on leadership roles in a young clubhouse that could use some.

“I haven’t been here that long,” said the affable Zunino, “but there’s a lot of energy here. We have some exciting, young arms. There’s so much talent. I hope to be able to help out in the leadership part of it, but I don’t think that’s a problem on this team from what I’ve seen. There are plenty of guys who can step up.”

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AL Cy Young award winner Blake Snell is certainly one of them. Cash said that he will have three full-time starters in Snell, Morton, and Tyler Glasnow. They’ll have two “opener” turns in the rotation because “we felt it was really successful for us last year and we’d like to go with it again.” Cash hasn’t ruled out another pitcher emerging and proving to Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder that he can be a full-time starter. The candidates include Ryan Yarbrough, Jalen Beeks, Wilmer Font, Jake Faria, and Emilio Pagan. By late June or July, highly touted lefthander Brent Honeywell will hopefully be back from Tommy John surgery.

American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell went 21-5 last season.
American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell went 21-5 last season.(Jeff Haynes/AP)

The Rays’ lineup could always use more offense. They signed Avisail Garcia, the former White Sox right fielder and another high-character player. First base will be an open competition between Yandy Diaz, Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe, and Nate Lowe. There’s no closer for the moment, with Sergio Romo, who saved 25 games a year ago, gone in free agency.

Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA algorithm has the Yankees winning 96 games and the AL East title over the Red Sox, who are projected at 89 wins, almost a 20-win drop. The Rays are projected to win 86 games, followed by the Blue Jays at 75 and Orioles at 59.

“We understand how tough the Red Sox and Yankees are,” said Zunino. “It’s an elite division, but as for our team, we just have to do our jobs, play up to our potential. We have to take care of our own business. I think this team did that very well last season.”

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As for the Yankees, they’ve started camp with an all-too-familiar refrain — Jacoby Ellsbury is hurt. This time it’s plantar fasciitis, not a great injury for a speed guy. Ellsbury missed last season after hip surgery, and his career has been part trainwreck, part brilliance. When healthy, Ellsbury has been an outstanding player, but health issues have made the seven-year, $153 million deal he signed with the Yankees the example often cited when owners are opposed to long-term contracts. The Red Sox have eaten some bad contracts, but one great decision they made was not re-signing Ellsbury, knowing they had Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting in the wings. Ellsbury is owed another $47 million.

The Yankees definitely improved a roster that won 100 games in 2018. Re-signing J.A. Happ and trading for James Paxton gives them a strong rotation along with Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and CC Sabathia. Added to the bullpen is Adam Ottavino, a former Northeastern star who was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2018. He replaces David Robertson, who signed with the Phillies. The Yankees brought back Zack Britton to go along with Dellin Betances. This is probably the strongest pen in baseball.

The Yankees acquired James Paxton from the Mariners on Nov. 19.
The Yankees acquired James Paxton from the Mariners on Nov. 19.(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

What manager Aaron Boone has stressed so far in camp is the comeback of Gary Sanchez, who went from a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2017 to there being numerous questions about his long-term ability to be a catcher. Boone has propped him up, feeling Sanchez can get back to that rookie form.

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Giancarlo Stanton had a good year in 2018, but the Yankees feel there’s much more in the tank. After an adjustment period, it appears as if Stanton has a better understanding of what to expect being a Yankee.

The lineup is also enhanced by former National League batting champion DJ LeMahieu likely playing a lot of second base but being moved around the infield. And the hope is veteran shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who missed last season because of double heel surgery, could return to his Colorado form, when he was one of the best players in the game.

Even if he doesn’t, the Yankees feel Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar, the Rookie of the Year runner-up, will continue to improve in their sophomore seasons. And the Yankees never seem to be out of the Manny Machado hunt.

The Blue Jays are waiting to build their team around a new core of players led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio. That’s likely the reason the Jays did very little in the offseason, other than hire former Rays bench coach Charlie Montoyo as their new manager. So, they’ll bide their time until they’re ready to compete again. The Jays won’t be pushovers, but it would be shocking to see them be a major contender.

The Orioles are about a five-year rebuild away. They will tank for a while, get those No. 1 overall draft picks, and build their team the Houston way with former Astros executive Mike Elias now in charge. The Orioles still have some chips to deal in starting pitchers Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner, and Dylan Bundy, so they can keep replenishing the farm system. It’s unfortunate that in essence a minor league team will be playing in an iconic ballpark such as Camden Yards for a franchise that was so vibrant at one time.

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Apropos of nothing

Jenrry Mejia signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox on Jan. 30.
Jenrry Mejia signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox on Jan. 30.(H. Rumph Jr./AP)

1. Jenrry (pronounced Henry) Mejia was banned from baseball after three failed PED tests, but commissioner Rob Manfred accepted his application for reinstatement after a face-to-face interview, as well as a public apology for comments Mejia made against Major League Baseball after he tested positive for the steroids stanozolol and boldenone.

After being released by the Mets upon his reinstatement, the Red Sox signed Mejia to a minor league deal. His agent, Peter Greenberg, said Mejia agreed to apologize for his statements as well as, obviously, stay clean. Greenberg said Mejia will be tested far more than the average player.

After his third violation, Mejia claimed he had spoken to several witnesses, one of whom accused MLB of hacking into players’ social media accounts. At a news conference at the time, Mejia said, “I’m here to appeal the case because I don’t feel guilty and I feel like something has come over me. I understand that I’m not guilty for something that I have been accused.” Mejia has since retracted those comments.

Greenberg said Red Sox director of pro scouting Gus Quattlebaum had his scouts watch Mejia in winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where Mejia worked as a starter, and then in the Caribbean World Series as a reliever. The Red Sox want him as a reliever.

“The Red Sox have told us that they would like to bring Jenrry up to pitch in some major league games if he’s looking good and in shape,” Greenberg said. “Jenrry keeps himself in good condition and he’s still young [29]. We felt this was a great opportunity for him to restart his career with this organization.”

Greenburg said Mejia, who once saved 28 games in a season for the Mets, would need to “shake off the rust,” but he feels Mejia understands the opportunity he’s been given.

“Jenrry just wants to move forward with his life and career. He doesn’t want to go backward,” Greenberg said.

2. If you’re a player 32 or older, don’t expect much of a contract. You don’t score very high on team algorithm models. It’s a good thing that the Red Sox didn’t feel this way about 35-year-old Steve Pearce, the 2018 World Series MVP. Older players do great things. They also provide leadership and chemistry, intangibles lost in those models.

3. The Players Association will not hold its spring training camp for unsigned free agents in Bradenton, Fla., this year. Last year’s camp only attracted fringe major leaguers, as most free agents had private workouts.

4. Jackie Bradley Jr. thinks the Red Sox could hit the hat trick with three Gold Glove outfielders, with left fielder Andrew Benintendi possibly elevating his game to that status. “That kid is a stud,” Bradley said. “The catches he made in the postseason were phenomenal. He’s a great outfielder.”

5. Tom “T-Bone” Giordano, one of the greatest scouts ever, died this past week at the age of 93. Giordano achieved his main goal, working until he died. He was a baseball man who played for Connie Mack, and though his playing career wasn’t very long, his knowledge was. He taught you something about baseball every time you spoke to him. “Hey, Nicola,” he would call me, and then proceed to talk about the Red Sox. I will miss those pregame talks, and dinners with him at Tropicana Field, where he spent most of his time in his later years. He loved Red Sox radio play-by-play man Joe Castiglione, with whom he would often share a box of cannolis.

Updates on nine

Christian Vazquez is a player multiple teams are looking to acquire via a trade.
Christian Vazquez is a player multiple teams are looking to acquire via a trade.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

1. Christian Vazquez, C, Red Sox — With J.T. Realmuto off the market (traded to the Phillies), teams are now looking at the next available catching options, and Vazquez is being considered as someone teams could make a run at. Some of the teams interested in Realmuto were the Padres, Dodgers, Reds, and Braves. Vazquez is not Realmuto’s peer offensively, but he is a young catcher under team control with a friendly long-term contract. The Red Sox have indicated it would be tough for them to carry three catchers again. What could they get in return? They could seek prospects to beef up their farm system or try to pry a late-inning reliever.

2. Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma — Did Murray make a choice he could live to regret when he decided to enter the NFL Draft over starting his baseball career with the Oakland Athletics? While smaller quarterbacks have succeeded in the NFL (Russell Wilson being an example), Murray is even smaller than Wilson and shorter than his listed 5 feet 10 inches. While Murray chose the lure of being an NFL quarterback over the grind of making it to the big leagues, he may come to find that the millions he could have made in baseball while not risking his future health might have been the better option. But when you’re 21, you’re not thinking that way.

3. Tyler Alexander, LHP, Athletics — The A’s made an intriguing signing in Alexander, who has been playing independent ball, as well as in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, the last four seasons after failing two drug tests for marijuana. Like Jenrry Mejia, Alexander had to petition the commissioner to be reinstated. Alexander was in the Brewers’ system when the suspensions occurred. He isn’t a hard thrower, but rather a low-90s sinkerballer and strike thrower who could fare well in the expanse of Oakland Coliseum.

4. Sergio Romo, RHP, Marlins — A smart signing by the Marlins, who got Romo at a good price ($2.5 million plus incentives) and who they can flip at midseason. Romo saved 25 games for the Rays last season. The Marlins are also looking into free agent outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who could also be a player they could flip.

5. Manny Machado, SS/3B, free agent — There’s unconfirmed talk in the baseball community that the Padres might have made a substantial offer to Machado after general manager A.J. Preller met with him this past week. The Padres, Phillies, and White Sox appear to be the finalists.

Manny Machado still remains unsigned as spring training begins.
Manny Machado still remains unsigned as spring training begins.(Billy Hurst/AP/File)

6. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Blue Jays — The hot-shot prospect will turn 20 in March, and new Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said this past week that Guerrero can make the team if he earns it. Blue Jays fans were unhappy that Guerrero wasn’t called up in September when the Jays’ season was hopelessly lost. There’s pressure for the Jays to have Guerrero make the team. Season ticket-holders spend big dollars to watch the Jays and they need to get excited about something.

7. Mookie Betts, OF, Red Sox — Betts was No. 2 on the MLB Network’s list of the top 100 players in the game, behind the Angels’ Mike Trout and ahead of Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado. Arenado, who received a $26 million salary for 2019, is in negotiations on a long-term deal to stay in Colorado. The contracts of Betts and Trout are up after 2020. J.D. Martinez (11), Chris Sale (13), Xander Bogaerts (46), Andrew Benintendi (56), and David Price (100) are other Red Sox who made the list.

8. James Shields, RHP, free agent — Shields should find work soon as teams start to round out their pitching staffs. He’s a veteran who teams can tack on as a fifth starter or a depth guy. He’d be especially important for a young staff given his reputation as a leader. Shields is 37, but on a one-year deal he could help a staff such as the Braves or Reds.

9. Buck Showalter, former manager, Orioles — Showalter said he turned down a few opportunities to work for front offices, feeling he’d make the respective managers uncomfortable. “I just wouldn’t want to do that to anyone,” he said. “I’d like to manage again, but if I don’t it’s not the end of the world. I’m enjoying time with my grandson and enjoying things in my life right now.” Showalter also has an opportunity in television if he wants it.

Extra innings

From the Bill Chuck files — “Nobody in baseball history has hit .247 more than Khris Davis, who has done it four times, but what makes this stat so delicious is that he has hit .247 each of the last four seasons, and the Bill James Handbook projects him at .247 next season.” . . . Also, “After starting 0-2 on the count last season, the Rays’ Mallex Smith led the majors hitting .305 (32 for 105). On the other side, Yoan Moncada, after starting 0-2, hit .054 (7 for 130 with 93 strikeouts).” . . . Happy birthday, Scott Williamson (43).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.