ST. PETERSBURG — Rays officials plan to keep talking over the lingering decisions in setting their 30-man opening-day roster until close to the Thursday noon deadline.
But it appeared by Wednesday night that they have already made most of the main calls — and a somewhat surprising one, putting reliever Ryan Thompson, a 28-year-old sidearmer who has yet to play in the majors, on the team.
The overall final decision seems to come down to whether to carry 16 or 17 pitchers.
That means weighing whether to have an extra arm in the bullpen, such as lefty Anthony Banda, or an extra player on the bench from the group of Mike Brosseau, Nate Lowe, Brian O’Grady and Daniel Robertson. (Either Brosseau or Robertson seems likely to be one.)
The Rays already decided they would carry a third catcher, adding Kevan Smith to share time with starter Mike Zunino and Michael Perez.
And this all is assuming the Rays still feel good after Thursday’s final workout about the conditioning and readiness of first baseman/DH Jose Martinez and pitcher Yonny Chirinos, who joined them for the first time last weekend after bouts of COVID-19.
“We’re getting closer,” manager Kevin Cash after Wednesday’s workout. “Guys have done a good job, they’ve really challenged our decisions, our thoughts.
“We feel like we’ve got a really deep group that in so many different areas and ways can help us win games. When that comes together, there’s always difficult decisions that come down to the wire.”
Thompson’s inclusion, which will be made official Thursday, was a reward for an impressive showing during the three-week summer camp, which he started as a nonroster invite working with the group in Port Charlotte, following an impressive spring training, throwing eight scoreless innings.
Each of the three times Thompson came to the Trop, the combination of the velocity on his fastball from the unusual angle, mixed in with an occasional slider, left hitters frustrated and coaches impressed.
“That stuff he was featuring was pretty, pretty nasty,” Cash said after seeing Thompson for the first time July 10.
Six days later, he noted what he liked: “Obviously the delivery, where he releases the ball from, but he’s doing it at 92 mph. That’s not a fun at-bat, even some left-handers commented saying that.”
The pro scouting staff deserves credit, too, as the Rays took Thompson from the Astros in the December 2018 minor-league Rule 5 draft after he missed the season due to Tommy John surgery. Before the injury, Thompson, a 23rd-round pick from Campbell University in North Carolina (after transferring from Chemekata Community College in Oregon) had worked his way to Triple A. The Rays brought him along slowly in 2019, as he pitched twice at advanced Class-A Charlotte and 14 times for Double-A Montgomery, going a combined 1-1, 2.70 with 25 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings.
Many of the other decisions are impacted by the one the Rays made earlier this week to change plans from carrying two catchers to three.
That seemed a product of wanting to keep Smith, who had an out clause in his minor-league contract that forced the Rays to either put him on their 40-man roster or let him go to a team that would. (They lost veteran Chris Herrmann on Sunday in a similar situation and have only prospect Ronaldo Hernandez, who has not played above Class A, as another option in their player pool.)
And since Smith is out of minor-league options, the Rays have to put him on the active roster.
“Discussing it more, we felt like that spot, that position, could be really difficult to navigate through with injuries,” Cash said. “I think we got to a point where it made the most sense like, ‘Look, we have three really good options … with Smitty, Mikey Perez and Z, it gives us some depth, and it give us some flexibility maybe to do some in-game stuff.' They all have some things they do really, really well. Mikey, obviously with the left-handed bat and can shut down a running game. Kevan Smith, a little bit of a veteran presence and really does a good job of putting the ball in play with his at-bats. And Z is as good as anybody at the game-calling and handling a pitching staff.”
Also to be decided is the status of outfielder Randy Arozarena, who has yet to be part of the workouts, and pitcher Brendan McKay, who participated early but has not been seen since July 6. Also, and likely related, how to make room on the 40-man roster for Thompson. (Outfielder Austin Meadows, COVID-19; and reliever Colin Poche, elbow, are already on the injured list.)
Pending the Thursday morning conversations, Chirinos’ first session throwing to hitters and the new-normal caveat of no one being sidelined for COVID-19 causes (positive or delayed test, symptoms, exposure), the Rays roster will look something like this:
Starters (5): Yonny Chirinos, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, Ryan Yarbrough.
Relievers (11 or 12): Jose Alvarado, Nick Anderson, Anthony Banda, Jalen Beeks, Diego Castillo, Oliver Drake, Pete Fairbanks, Andrew Kittredge, Aaron Loup, Trevor Richards, Chaz Roe, Ryan Thompson
Catchers (3): Michael Perez, Kevan Smith, Mike Zunino
Infielders/outfielders (10 or 11): Willy Adames, Mike Brosseau, Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz, Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Lowe, Nate Lowe, Manuel Margot, Jose Martinez, Brian O’Grady, Hunter Renfroe, Daniel Robertson, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Joey Wendle
And once they’re set on that, Cash can move on to things such as the batting order. Choi is emerging as an option to hit leadoff against right-handers, with Brandon Lowe and Tsutsugo as other choices.