MLB Spring Sensations: 5 Rays Who Are Making an Early Impression

Daniel LewigCorrespondent IMarch 7, 2011

MLB Spring Sensations: 5 Rays Who Are Making an Early Impression

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    We're two weeks into spring training and now that pitchers and hitters have started to get their groove back, attention is going to shift towards results.  The Tampa Bay Rays bullpen is wide open, and many pitchers are vying for a spot.  From grizzled veterans to young phenoms, the Rays have a variety of arms to look at.

    Not to mention a guy by the name of Manny Ramirez. 

    Players like right-fielder Matt Joyce and second baseman Sean Rodriguez are trying to show they are ready for more at-bats this season.  Players like pitcher James Shields and utility man Ben Zobrist are trying to show their health-related or homer-related subpar 2010 seasons are behind them.

    And you have prospects like pitchers Alex Torres and Chris Archer trying to show the team the promise of a better tomorrow.

    That being said, here are five Rays who have stuck out in the first two weeks of the season.

5) Alex Torres

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    The 22-year-old left-hander was acquired from the Angels in the Scott Kazmir trade.  Torres has opened some eyes on his ability even if his frame isn't turning heads.  The 5'10" lefty has tossed four scoreless innings this spring, earning the praise of manager, Joe Maddon. 

    Torres isn't contending for a spot on the big league club right out of the gate, but he'll only be a phone call away as he continues to develop at the Rays AAA affiliate in Durham.  Having a pitcher like Torres available as injury insurance is another testament to the Rays pitching-rich farm system.

4) Casey Kotchman

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    This hometown first baseman signed a minor-league deal with the Rays this offseason.  Kotchman has struggled in recent seasons with the bat, but still is only 27-years old.  Signed for depth and to push Dan Johnson in the bid to replace Carlos Pena, Kotchman has a .357 average, which flashes his strong defense.  Kotchman has made a couple of diving stops, reminding Rays fans of some of the things Pena has done for years.

    The question is, can Kotchman show enough to make the Rays think he's deserving of a big-league look?

3) Juan Cruz

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    The Rays made one of the most shrewd moves in 2010, signing Joaquin Benoit to a $500,000, minor league contract.  Benoit would start the season in AAA, but would be called up by May, and put up numbers worthy of being the best set-up man in baseball.

    Benoit moved on to Detroit with a three year, 16.5 million dollar contract, and the Rays have moved on in search of the next Benoit.

    Enter Juan Cruz.

    Cruz has been a solid reliever when healthy, and was a type-A free agent two seasons ago.  Unfortunately he had shoulder problems during those seasons and Kansas City didn't get what they bargained for.

    Rays skipper Joe Maddon is high on Cruz and his ability to help the Rays 2011 'pen, and is hopeful by what he's seen so far.  Cruz could do wonders for a Rays bullpen that has lost so much in the offseason.

2) Jake McGee

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    McGee got his first taste of the majors late last season in the bullpen and left the Rays front office drooling over another pitching prospect that is ready to contribute at the major league level. 

    McGee has the type of high-end stuff that can allow him to step into the 9th inning role.  So far, so good for McGee, who has pitched a couple of innings in the past week. 

    If McGee continues to look good in the spring, he might keep Maddon from reaching for his best during the games.

1) Manny Ramirez

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    Ramirez is the type of personality that can eventually wear on you and wear out his welcome.  But when he's motivated, he's one of the best right-handed hitters in the game.

    Judging by spring so far, consider him motivated.

    Last week, Ramirez came to Maddon and asked to play in an away game, to keep getting himself ready for the season.  On Sunday, Maddon gave Ramirez the day off, only to come in at 8am and see Ramirez working out and doing some lifting.

    Look, whether you love or hate Ramirez, he wants to prove to everyone that he can still hit.  And it doesn't matter what the Rays record is.  As long as he has the opportunity to hit, and the Rays are most likely going to give him the clean-up spot in the order, let him run with it.

    Ramirez is hitting well, already adding a couple of extra-base hits, including a homer, to begin spring.  If Ramirez hits like he has throughout his career, Evan Longoria will have the best lineup protection of his career.