ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Heightened expectations don't scare the Tampa Bay Rays.
Winning 90 games a year ago not only established them as a team on the rise, but one that's undaunted by the challenge of closing the gap between themselves and the big-spending Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
The Rays won more games than any team that didn't make playoffs in 2018 and are confident they have what it takes to end a five-year postseason hiatus.
The quest begins March 28 at home against the Houston Astros, and manager Kevin Cash understandably is optimistic.
The Rays bolstered a pitching rotation led by Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell by signing right-harder Charlie Morton this winter and feel good about adding catcher Mike Zunino, infielder Yandy Diaz and outfielders Avisail Garcia and Guillermo Heredia to the roster, too.
"This is a new group. It's a little bit more established group. We've brought in some new additions, and we kind of want to create something even more special going forward," Cash said.
"When you have a young club that just won 90 games it's easy to have a lot of optimism about what's ahead. But it's also hard to win 90 games. A lot of things went our way to help us get there," general manager Erik Neander said. "I think this group will stay humble and will be motivated to come out and prove last year, and certainly the last couple months of the season, weren't a fluke,"
Tampa Bay overcame a slow start by going 41-25 after the All-Star break, including 19-9 in September, to finish third in the tough AL East -- 18 games behind the world champion Red Sox and 10 in back of the Yankees, who won 108 and 100 games, respectively.
Not bad at all for a team that overhauled the roster with a series of salary-lashing moves both before and during the season to launch a youth movement that spawned for a brighter future.
Cash is confident increased expectations won't faze the Rays.
"I don't look at it as pressure," the manager said. "I think our guys should feel good about what they accomplished, but also we all recognize we came up short, so we have to improve. Knowing the way these guys carried themselves in the last couple of months of the season, they are going to embrace whatever pressure there is."
Some other things to know about the 2019 Rays:
Morton was an All-Star for the first time last season, when he went 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA for the Astros. The Rays gave him a two-year, $30 million contract and are plugging him into a three-man rotation with Snell and Tyler Glasnow. Zunino helps defensively and hit 20 homers in 113 games with the Mariners last year. An All-Star two years ago with the White Sox, Garcia looks to rebound after injuries contributed to a .236 batting average with 19 homers and 49 RBI in 93 games in 2018.
Cash plans to continue use of "openers" -- relievers who start games and generally get three to six outs -- to fill the fourth and fifth turns through the rotation. The Rays used traditional starters 84 times last season, and the team went 32-23 in 55 games started by openers. The remaining 23 starts were filled with "bullpen days" started by a relievers who usually worked deeper into games than openers
The success of Tampa Bay's openers grabbed the attention of several teams that have tried a variation of the creative strategy that was a big part of Tampa Bay's success a year ago. The Rays' 3.50 ERA after May 19, when Cash used an opener for the first time, was third-best in the majors. The strategy has drawn criticism, too, with some pitchers from other other teams suggesting it devalues traditional starting pitching.
"It's different. It's unique," Cash said. "There's no doubt baseball has done one thing for many consecutive years kind of one way, and it changed a lot of thoughts, perceptions and a lot of debate."
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Right-handler Brent Honeywell missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The top prospect is back and, barring a setback, could be ready to make his major league debut as early June. Catcher Michael Perez, infielder/outfielder Brandon Lowe, reliever Ian Gabault and first baseman Nate Lowe could help at some point.
The Rays have won 90 or more games six times since 2008, tied with the Yankees. Only the Red Sox and Dodgers, with seven each, have more over that span.