ST. PETERSBURG -- A few days after Hurricane Ian made landfall and raged through Southwest Florida on Sept. 28, 2022, Dan Moeller made his way to the Charlotte Sports Park complex in Port Charlotte, Fla.
He couldn’t believe what he saw.
Metal panels, ripped from the main ballpark’s roof, wrapped around palm trees. Light towers bent, stadium lights broken, signage destroyed, awnings twisted and mangled. The clubhouse building sustained substantial water damage, mostly from roof leaks that wrecked ceiling tiles, carpet and lockers. The dugouts on the back fields were demolished, their backstops badly damaged and steel batter’s eye structures flattened “as if a giant just stepped on them.”
“All you could do was just look around and go, ‘Oh, my,’” said Moeller, the Rays’ special projects and field operations director. “It was just crazy to see something like that -- and I’m a Floridian. I’ve been through hurricanes before, but I’ve never seen anything of that magnitude.”
Two months later, the Rays announced they wouldn’t be able to use Charlotte Sports Park, their Spring Training home since 2009. They pieced together a plan last year that required an early spring move from Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to Tropicana Field and the local Huggins-Stengel Field. Their Minor Leaguers started the year at Disney, then their extended spring group, Rookie-level affiliate and instructional league camp found temporary homes at the Twin Lakes complex in Sarasota.
Next week, after 16 months and more than $17 million in repairs, the Rays will return to Charlotte County. After a year away, they’re thrilled to be back.
The Rays started holding Minor League minicamps at Charlotte Sports Park the second week of January, and things should be back to normal when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13. Tampa Bay’s first full-squad workout will take place Feb. 19, and the ballpark’s Grapefruit League opener is set for Feb. 24.
“It feels like it’s been forever since we’ve been back there, even though it’s only been 15, 16 months,” Moeller said. “But it’s been a long year and a half.”
Moeller, who spent 23 years as the Rays’ head groundskeeper, got a sense of the scale in the days after the storm struck.
One example: All the facility’s batting practice “turtle” shells had been chained and secured to the backstops on the back fields. Most were “twisted into pretzels,” Moeller said, but one seemingly disappeared in the storm when the backstop was leveled. They found it eventually. It had been whipped across the entire diamond, then over a 6-foot fence and a neighboring pond, before landing about 100 feet into the woods well beyond the field.
The infield clay washed out and into the outfield grass, with some of it flung as far as 200 feet. They had to replenish much of the clay in the infield and warning tracks, strip all the infield grass, plus whatever the dirt damaged in the outfield, and resod the fields.
The repair work included a few necessary upgrades that fans might notice, like new batter’s eyes and LED light fixtures atop bigger light poles. But the work was mostly about getting the facility, including the clubhouse buildings and the back fields, back in working order after the damage and destruction caused by the deadly hurricane.
“For the most part, everything is pretty much as it was back in 2022. Feels like forever,” Moeller said. “Everything should be put back the way it was. A lot went into it.”
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On Saturday, MLB.com’s
Mark Feinsand broke the news that the Rays were finalizing a deal with free-agent reliever Phil Maton.
That deal, reportedly for a guaranteed $6.5 million (including a $250,000 buyout of a $7.75 million club option for 2025), has not been confirmed by the club and likely won’t be official until next week, as it’s pending a physical. It’s also worth noting the Rays have a full 40-man roster, but they can create space without dropping anyone else by placing rehabbing pitchers on the 60-day injured list shortly after Spring Training begins.
Whenever it’s completed, Maton will be an intriguing addition. Even with Robert Stephenson departing via free agency, the Rays felt comfortable enough with their bullpen depth to trade Andrew Kittredge to the Cardinals for
Richie Palacios. Now, they’ve gone to the open market to add another experienced right-hander to the mix.
Whenever the Rays go out of their way to add a pitcher, especially in an area of relative strength, it’s always worth keeping an eye on. Look no further than Zach Eflin last offseason.
But it’s easy to see the appeal of Maton, who gained some postseason experience with the Guardians (2020) and Astros (’21, ’23). Last year, the 30-year-old posted a 3.00 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP with 74 strikeouts in 66 innings over 68 appearances. His average exit velocity (84.5 mph), hard-hit rate (23.5%) and expected numbers (including a 3.14 xERA) were all elite.
Maton’s high-spin curveball became his primary pitch last season, accounting for 40.4% of his offerings, and produced a .169 opponents’ average and a .280 slugging percentage along with a 36.4% whiff rate. His fastball averaged just 89 mph, but opponents whiffed on 32.3% of their swings while batting just .226 against it. His third pitch was a sweeper that generated a 29.9% whiff rate.
It’ll be interesting to see what sort of role Maton takes on, given the Rays’ current bullpen options.
Pete Fairbanks functioned as a fairly traditional closer when healthy last year. With Stephenson gone,
Jason Adam and Colin Poche would appear to be Fairbanks’ most likely setup men. Left-hander Garrett Cleavinger is back, as are versatile righties Shawn Armstrong and Chris Devenski. With Maton on board, the last spot could come down to two pitchers: side-arming righty Kevin Kelly, who can now be optioned after shedding his Rule 5 Draft restrictions last year, and lefty
Tyler Alexander, an early offseason pickup.
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