Elliot Johnson played catch with fans in the parking lot

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Just got an email from reader Chris Bell, relating a cool story about Rays infielder Elliot Johnson, bro:

Prior to the Rays game last night, I was with a few buddies tailgating in the parking lot.  Out of the blue I posted a tweet to Elliot Johnson that I was in the lot, and to come out and play catch.  He comes out into the lot, in full game gear minus the jersey (with a glove and a ball) and plays catch with us … after the game we were behind the dugout, Elliot spots us and tosses us a few game balls.  What a great experience, Elliot couldn’t have been a nicer guy.

The video can be seen here.  Very, very cool on the part of Johnson.

2017 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The good news: it can’t get any worse. And I don’t mean that flippantly or as a means of laughing at their 2016 performance. Really, most of the things that could’ve gone wrong for the Rays last year did, from injuries to down years from guys they needed to perform to simple bad luck. Meaning that last year was probably near the bottom of their expectations and that, with merely some better luck and better health, the Rays will be a better team.

Chris Archer had a fantastic, All-Star year in 2015. Last year he was one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball. The good news here is that a lot of that was a combination of bad luck and command issues, not a serious overall regression or any foreshadowing of injuries. He still struck out a ton of guys last season, but when he didn’t miss bats he missed the zone. There’s no reason to expect that Archer will repeat his 2016 performance. He’s too darn talented for that, and I would expect him to reassert his acelike status.

But it’s not all Archer. Indeed, beyond him the rotation is really solid with the potential to do some special things. It seems eons ago, but Alex Cobb posted two amazing seasons back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 before elbow injuries hit. He’s now back at full strength. Jake Odorizzi has been a solid presence in the rotation the past two seasons. Blake Snell is raw and wild, but has great stuff. It’s spring and we’re being optimistic, but if he makes at least a passing acquaintance with the zone in 2017 he could be a special pitcher.  Between injury stuff and the need for bouncebacks, a good story about the Rays rotation is all wishcasting to some degree, but there is a lot of talent in this group, and that’s a lot more than a lot of teams have to wish on.

The Rays lost a lot of close games and lost a lot of games late last year. See above about bad luck. That’s often a sign of bullpen trouble. And yes, the Rays’ 2016 pen had trouble. Closer Alex Colome was excellent, but everyone was else was pretty homer happy. Last year the former closer, Brad Boxberger suffered a bad abdominal injury in spring training and it basically derailed everything. He’s working his way back from a lat injury now, but the prognosis is a lot better for him to be at full power and effectiveness at least some point early in the season. Erasmo Ramirez has a hamstring issue, but he’ll likely be the long man. Danny Farquhar is solid. Xavier Cedeno falls into the “he’s better than he showed last year” pile. There’s hope here for better things and, of course, better luck, even if this is not a stellar group. Again, manager Kevin Cash has something to work with here, even if it’s not a lot.

On offense, Evan Longoria continued to be Evan Longoria last season and Brad Miller broke out with a big power year. That’s something else to build on. The issue for the Rays is getting on base. They were among the worst teams in baseball in this department last season and, looking up and down this roster, it’s hard to see where a bunch more walks and hits may come from. Having Kevin Kiermaier back for a full year will be key, and not just for his stellar defense, as he showed some offensive improvement when he did play last year.  If he builds on that he’s a borderline MVP candidate. Ultimately, though, there just aren’t enough weapons here.

I think the Rays are a lot more talented than last year’s 68-win team suggested. I don’t think, however, they underperformed that talent by, like, 20 games or anything, nor did they improve themselves in the offseason enough to make up that kind of gap. Heck, they hardly did much at all. As such, I think they’ll be better than they were in 2016, but I feel like they’re, at the very most, an 80-win team. And most teams don’t hit their best case projections like that.

Prediction: Fifth Place, American League East.

The Braves will be serving some insane food this season

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Lots of teams have crazy concession items and lots of them will circulate photos of the more gonzo ones in the coming week leading up to the baseball season. The Braves, however, have been one of the more aggressive players in the gimmick concession item game in recent years, and they just sent around a release talking about some of the stuff they, and their concessionaire, Delaware North, will be serving at their new ballpark, Sun Trust Park, in 2017.

Among them:a blackened catfish po boy, which is a blackened 6-ounce filet of catfish cut up among three tacos, with a cajun remoulade. Some BBQ beef brisket sliders. A double burger. An ice cream bar. They’re also going to have a regionally-inspired thing called “The Taste of Braves Country,” showcasing southern cooking from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. Which they’re calling “Braves Country.” Accurate enough, I guess, even if some of us are old enough to remember when they aspired to be a national team. Alas.

The big item, though, is this one:

It’s called the “Tomahawk Chop” sandwich. It’s a fried pork chop with collard green slaw and white BBQ sauce. It serves four and costs $26. I’m guessing it tastes fantastic, but I think the name is pretty cringeworthy for the same reason the cheer which gives it its name is. And, given the dynamics of the Braves move to their new stadium, the choice of BBQ sauce is . . . amusing? I dunno.

Anyway, enjoy, Braves fans.