The owner of one of the best teams in baseball was wearing shorts and a wrinkled shirt as he walked in alone from the parking lot the other day to the spring training complex.
Stu Sternberg stopped for a few seconds to say hello to manager Kevin Cash, who was holding a media briefing on the sidewalk with five reporters around him.
A few hours later, only 3,133 fans showed up for the game, and half were cheering for the other team.
It might take winning the World Series for the Tampa Bay Rays to get a lot of attention. Don’t put it past them.
“I think this team is ready to do some special things,” outfielder Austin Meadows said.
The Rays were 96-66 last season then won at Oakland in the wild-card game before taking Houston to five games in the Division Series. The Astros outscored the Rays by one run in the series.
Tampa Bay then improved its roster, adding outfielder/first baseman Jose Martinez from the Cardinals and outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot from the Padres in separate deals. The Rays also signed Japanese outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo.
The depth gives the Rays the ability to platoon at certain spots, survive injuries, and rest players when needed.
Meadows, who had 33 home runs, 89 RBIs, and a .922 OPS last season, is their best hitter, but he won’t have to carry the offense.
“We have a lot of choices,” Meadows said. “You look around the clubhouse and we have good hitters who gained a lot of experience last year.”
The Rays were ninth in the American League in runs last season. They expect an improved lineup and bench will provide more support to a deep and versatile pitching staff.
With the Yankees losing Luis Severino for the season, the Rays have the best rotation in the AL East and a bullpen loaded with high-velocity arms.
In Charlie Morton, 2018 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, Brendan McKay, and Ryan Yarbrough, the Rays have enough starters to avoid using openers or to pick their spots when to use them.
The bullpen is a matchup problem for every team given all the options Cash can choose from. There’s not necessarily one closer, which is a good thing. They can wait for somebody to grow into the job, or play matchups.
“I like that it’s just not about one guy,” Morton said. “We had that in Pittsburgh in 2013. Our bullpen was built similarly. Anybody could do the job and they had their own identity.
“The coaches here do a good job of putting those guys in a position where they can have success.”
The six games of playoff experience were meaningful if only because it made the Rays hungry for more.
“There’s a lot we can build on,” Meadows said. “The only way you be prepared for games like that is to have played them.”
Said Cash: “We’ve got to get back there again. But the benefit of playing in that type of atmosphere, the magnitude of those games . . . Hopefully those experiences are going to give some confidence and comfort some minds going into that situation.
“Speaking for myself, it’s going to benefit me. Never having been in that position, I certainly think it’s going to benefit the players. It’s all different — the travel, the interviews, the press, the days off. It’s a lot.”
Morton, 36, is the oldest player on the team. The Rays are his fifth team over 13 years in the majors. He speaks from experience, having played for excellent teams and a few dreadful ones.
“This group likes being around each other,” Morton said. “We have fun. Those playoff games helped the younger guys. There’s a sense of calmness around them. They know what has to be done.”
PLAYING IT SAFE
Red Sox aren’t taking chances
The Red Sox haven’t punted on the season. They have a roster capable of winning 90 games, and that could be enough to snag a playoff spot.
The lineup is too potent and the bullpen too deep to consider this season lost before it starts. But to use one more football analogy, the Sox are definitely playing prevent defense.
That they announced on Feb. 27 that Chris Sale wouldn’t be ready to pitch until April 7 at the earliest was the latest sign. Technically, Sale will go on the injured list for having been sick. But it’s clear the Sox are being abundantly cautious with his arm after shoulder and elbow issues led to stints on the IL the last two seasons.
Sale turns 31 on March 30 and his five-year, $145 million contract starts this season. The Sox will take every chance they get to cut down on his workload.
Barring changes, the Sox are down to Nate Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Martin Perez for the rotation to start the season.
Ryan Weber is a good candidate to join them. Beyond that, be prepared for a rotating cast of borderline big leaguers as Chaim Bloom and the staff evaluate the pitchers they’ve added to the organization in recent months.
It’s a mix of competitiveness, caution, and looking to the future.
Some other observations on the Red Sox:
■ I’d make Rodriguez the Opening Day starter. He earned it with how well he pitched last season and it also sends him a message that he needs to be more than the little brother of the rotation.
■ The Sox have 67 players in camp, not counting Dustin Pedroia. The Giants (71) and Orioles (68) are the only teams with more.
■ The Sox have a bunch of righthanded relievers with similar stuff. Nonroster righthander Trevor Hildenberger is a sidearmer with some funk. He had a solid season with the Twins in 2017 but fell off the last two seasons.
Hildenberger is an interesting option if he can get back to throwing strikes.
■ Josh Ockimey has hit .239 in the minors and struck out in 34.5 percent of his at-bats. But in the right situation, he’s a major leaguer.
Ockimey has 81 homers in the minors and a solid .789 OPS. The lefty hitter could certainly be a platoon first baseman for a rebuilding team.
■ The Sox lead the majors with $29.5 million in dead money this season. They’re paying $16 million to the Dodgers for David Price and $13.5 million to Rusney Castillo for his final year with Pawtucket.
The Mariners are second with $28.4 million. They paid off teams to take Jay Bruce, Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion, and Mike Leake.
■ Here’s to Jack McCormick, who is the new senior director of club relations for the Sox after spending 24 years as the traveling secretary.
Here’s what a traveling secretary does: Arranges charter flights and hotels for groups of roughly 60 people who will be on the road approximately 100 days a year in 16 cities in three or four time zones.
He also helps players get flights and hotels for wives, kids, girlfriends, parents, friends, etc., and is responsible for the per diem money on the road.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. But Jack always had a smile and a good word and sage advice for writers dealing with their own travel issues.
Betts makes his feelings known
It wasn’t a fiery speech, according to one observer. But Mookie Betts felt the need to address his new Dodgers teammates last Sunday about what he felt was their inadequate effort early in camp.
“That hit me, the first day of spring training [games] he addresses a group he doesn’t know, that’s not easy to do the way he did,” Kike Hernández told MLB.com.
“I thought it was great; it was awesome. It was, ‘This is how I play the game,’ and I respected the heck out of him for that. The way he talks about the game, there’s a lot of similarities with how I play and how I feel the game should be played.”
Betts was like that with the Red Sox, especially over the last two seasons when Dustin Pedroia wasn’t often around. He expects a certain standard of how to go about things.
“I knew he’d be professional in every sense of the word. I didn’t realize he’d be as open to talking about how he’s feeling at the plate or what he does defensively,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “A lot of guys just do things, but to kind of share information, he’s always willing to have a conversation about baseball.”
■ It is never a good idea to read too much into spring training results. In fact, it’s generally a very bad idea. But the Orioles are encouraged by what they have seen from Chris Davis, who added 25 pounds during the offseason and has been hitting baseballs with authority since camp opened.
Davis, who will be 34 on March 17, has hit .172 with only 28 home runs and 331 strikeouts the last two seasons. He had 223 homers and a healthy .840 OPS from 2012-17.
Davis was 5 for 7 with three homers and four walks in his first three Grapefruit League games.
■ The Pirates have a 6-foot-7-inch shortstop in their camp. Oneil Cruz is only 21 but finished last season in Double A. No player that tall has ever played more than a few innings at shortstop in the majors, but the Pirates are willing to let him try it for now. He has more than enough arm for the position.
Cruz played two innings against the Red Sox on Wednesday and nothing came his way.
■ A scout on White Sox righthander Michael Kopech: “He’s throwing like he did before the [Tommy John] surgery. Same big fastball.”
■ Shohei Ohtani is still listed as 210 pounds by the Angels. But it’s not the same 210 pounds he was carrying in 2018 given the thick muscles in his shoulders and arms. Ohtani was able to lift weights throughout the winter for the first time in two years and it shows.
“More athletic,” one scout said. “I think you’ll see that play out more at the plate than the mound.”
Ohtani was recovering from ankle surgery before the 2018 season and last winter was coming back from Tommy John surgery.
He’s also 25 now, and players often get stronger as they get older.
■ John Lackey visited Cubs camp this past week to talk to the pitchers and see old pals David Ross and Jon Lester. The Cubs also employ three other 2013 Red Sox champions: Mike Napoli (quality assurance coach), Ryan Dempster (special assistant), and Craig Breslow (director of pitching).
■ The Rays gave shortstop Wander Franco, who turns 19 on Sunday, four innings in a split-squad game on Thursday. Franco is the consensus top prospect in the game after playing two minor league seasons.
The first ball hit to Franco was off the bat of 36-year-old Miguel Cabrera, a routine ground out. Cabrera signed with the Marlins on July 2, 1999, 20 months before Franco was born.
■ The Indians, like the Red Sox, need rotation help. After trading Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger needed surgery on his left knee and will miss the start of the season. Carlos Carrasco has a right hip strain and also could start the year on the IL.
Aaron Civale, a Northeastern product who had an impressive rookie season, is dealing with a groin strain.
Boras steps up
Next time you’re inclined to think poorly of Scott Boras, remember this:
Shortly before he died, Kobe Bryant texted Lakers GM Rob Pelinka asking him for help contacting Boras regarding an internship for 16-year-old Alexis Altobelli.
Before Pelinka could answer, Bryant and eight others perished in a helicopter accident. The victims included Alexis’s father (John), mother (Keri), and sister (Alyssa).
Based on what would have been Bryant’s recommendation, Boras told the Los Angeles Times he would create a position for Alexis this summer that would include working in marketing, baseball operations, and other departments within his company.
Boras was friendly with John Altobelli, a longtime junior college coach in Orange County. Another member of the family, J.J., is an amateur scout with the Red Sox in Southern California.
With Johnny Antonelli passing away on Friday, the only Boston Braves still alive are Del Crandall and Bert Thiel. Crandall’s 90th birthday is Thursday and Thiel is 93 . . . Brock Holt’s deal with Milwaukee guarantees him only $3.25 million. His salary for this season is $2.5 million with a buyout of $750,000 for 2021. The team has a $5 million option. Holt would earn $250,000 for making 400 plate appearances with an additional $250,000 for 425 and 450. Holt had 509 plate appearances in 2015 but hasn’t had more than 367 since. The Brewers also see him as a platoon player. That Holt took a cut from the $3.5 million he made last season is indicative of two things: Teams were wary of his injury history and that 26-man rosters have reduced the value of do-it-all utility guys . . . The three-batter minimum for pitchers starts this season. An intentional walk will count as a batter, but a pickoff does not . . . Major League Baseball sent out a memo to teams on Thursday warning them to be diligent about coronavirus and to carefully check players with flu-like symptoms. The Red Sox quarantined Taiwanese prospect Chih-Jung Liu for a week even though he was perfectly healthy . . . In an effort to create more action on the field, MLB is planning to change pickoff rules for at least some levels of the minors this season as a testing ground for future use in the majors. Pitchers would be required to step off the rubber before throwing to first, which obviously is a huge advantage to the runner. But as Baseball America pointed out, catchers will be better in position to throw once automated strike zones are in use and they’re not focused on framing pitches . . . The retirement of four veteran umpires — Gary Cederstrom, Dana DeMuth, Mike Everitt, and Jeff Kellogg — opened the door for MLB to make two notable additions as crew chiefs. Kerwin Danley is the first Black crew chief and Alfonso Marquez is the second Hispanic crew chief. He is from Mexico. Dan Iassogna and Jim Reynolds also were made crew chiefs. Both are UConn graduates and Reynolds is a Marlborough native . . . Happy birthday to Red Sox lefthander Josh Taylor, who will be 27 on Monday. Taylor had a strong rookie season in 2019, appearing in 52 games with a 1.18 WHIP and 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Monday also marks the 84th birthday of Don Schwall, who was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1961 after going 15-7 with a 3.22 ERA for the Sox. He was traded to the Pirates before the 1963 season, the Sox getting Dick Stuart in return.