ST. PETERSBURG — The first names happen to be the same, but there actually is a deep bond between Rays high-end pitching prospects Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz.
“We’re like a singular being,” McClanahan said. “We do everything together. We throw together. We live together. We run together.”
So it was only fitting they came together to Tropicana Field on Sunday for the opportunity to pitch an inning each in a simulated game and show Rays officials — and some of the hitters — what’s soon to come.
“That’s pretty exciting stuff to watch,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Every hitter kind of came out of the box … with their eyes opened really wide because that’s about as good a stuff as you’re going to see out of … young men.”
Even more impressive was that they pitched like they’re more advanced.
“The biggest thing for me is their ability to throw strikes and their understanding of how to make a small adjustment to get back in the zone if they miss,” catcher Mike Zunino said.
“A lot of time with young players, that’s what makes them spiral. They throw a couple balls in a row, they don’t necessarily have the adjustment right in their back pocket to go to. These guys are extremely polished.”
McClanahan, 23, is further along than Baz, who turned 21 last month. The 2018 first-round draft pick from USF with a powerful left arm moved through three levels last season to get to Double-A Montgomery and earned an invitation to big-league spring training, where he made a strong impression.
After three-plus months of playing catch in pitcher Ryan Yarbrough’s backyard and a week of Spring 2.0 workouts with the Port Charlotte group after the season’s coronavirus shutdown, McClanahan looked like he hadn’t missed a day.
He proved it with a blazing four-seam fastball from the left side paired with a sometimes-slider, sometimes-curve that pitching people call a slurve and that hitters describe with less-polite words.
“There’s not too many lefties out there throwing 99 (mph) with that breaker,” Zunino said.
Whatever you want to call it, Cash said, “Shane McClanahan’s breaking ball right now, it’s a big-league weapon and would be rated as a really, really good one.”
Could McClanahan get to show it during this abbreviated 60-game season?
Being invited to be part of this 60-player camp pool was the first step, though not being on the 40-man roster is an issue, to some degree.
There’s also a matter of role. McClanahan has been a starter in the minors, and he considers himself one. But his quicker path to the majors might be as a reliever, though the Rays have plenty of talent and depth.
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“I think he’d be just fine in whatever role,” Cash said. “His stuff will play in any league, in any inning.”
Given the extreme uncertainties of this season — one in which player availability and team needs can change daily based on COVID-19 testing and other protocols — being good and being healthy might be enough.
McClanahan is sure he can handle it.
“Absolutely,” he said. “You don’t play this game to be a minor-leaguer. You play the game to ultimately achieve that goal of becoming a big-league player. So I know I’m ready. I put in the work, and whenever that time comes, I’ll be ready.”
Baz joined pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows as the bountiful return from the Pirates in the July 2018 Chris Archer trade. He is probably the least likely of the 60 Rays in the two camps who will get to play in the majors this season, behind No. 1 overall prospect/shortstop phenom Wander Franco.
That doesn’t diminish the excitement Baz felt in being invited to this camp, nor having the opportunity to pitch regularly, given the cancellation of the minor-league season that would have seen him start at advanced Class-A Port Charlotte after a solid 2019 at Class-A Bowling Green.
“It’s really cool to be around a lot of the older, higher-level players and be able to learn from them,” Baz said.
“The biggest thing is just being a sponge down here and learning as much as I can. That kind of stuff (like roster moves) isn’t really in my control, so I try not to think about it all.
“I’m really working on putting my pitches where I want, and I’ve worked really diligently making my delivery consistent, and I feel really good.”
That seemed obvious as he worked an impressive 1-2-3-4 inning Sunday.
Baz retired catcher Michael Perez on a fly to deep right on a first-pitch fastball, which got Baz to turn up the heat a bit. He got infielder Yandy Diaz on a called third strike, outfielder Hunter Renfroe on a fly to right, then, after asking if he could face another hitter, he got infielder Mike Brosseau on a groundout.
“Just really, really effortless,” Cash said. “You look at (Baz) out there, he’s a big kid (6 feet 3, 190 pounds), but he’s really put together. The delivery is so clean, then, whack, the ball is on top of you really, really quick.”
The upper-90s fastball with late movement is Baz’s best weapon, especially at the top of the zone, with his curveball and slider under development.
“I’ve heard a lot about him, and I was excited to get behind the dish and catch him,” Zunino said. “He’s got a lot of potential. … If he can continue to mix that (pitch assortment) up, just another power arm that in a condition like this could help us a lot sooner than we would think.”
Plus, McClanahan said there has been a “night and day” change in Baz’s maturity since they met in 2018.
The depth of pitching in the organization — from the majors to the low end of the minors to this year’s draft, where they made high schooler Nick Bitsko their top pick — is extraordinary and a reason the Rays expect their future to be bright for a while.
Sunday was a good peek, and a good reminder, Cash said, of the work the Rays scouts and player development staffs did to get these pitchers to this point.
“Fun to watch,” Cash said.
Now it’s just a wait to see a Shane come back.