Going deep has a different meaning for Rays this year

With injuries piling up at a staggering pace, the Rays have benefited from accrued depth.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kevan Smith, center, joins his teammates on the field before a game against the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 10.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kevan Smith, center, joins his teammates on the field before a game against the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 10. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 14, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — When the Rays clinch a playoff spot, likely later this week in Baltimore — and as they potentially go on to grander accomplishments over the next month — plenty of credit will be given to the obvious people.

The frontline players and team leaders, manager Kevin Cash and his coaches, Joe Benge’s athletic training staff, the clubhouse crew and, if they’re smart, the bosses. (Always remember the bosses.)

But credit also is due to some unexpected contributors, beyond players they already had who stepped into larger roles, such as Mike Brosseau and Joey Wendle.

What about the players who initially weren’t on the roster or in the plans? Those who seemed at best to be fringe contributors, but instead were thrust into significant duty thank to an endless stretch of injuries that have pained the Rays throughout this abbreviated season?

Related: Playoffs will be dry, distant, definitely distant

By one count, with Ji-Man Choi the latest, the Rays have had 15 players sidelined by injury (and two others for extended time with COVID-19) since Spring 2.0 camp opened in July. They currently are missing six top relievers, one member of the rotation and their starting catcher, first baseman and third baseman.

By another count, based on an unofficial camp-opening depth chart, they are currently using their No. 8 starter, Nos. 12-15 relievers, No. 6 outfielder and No. 9 infielder.

And the Rays head into play Tuesday with a 30-17 record that is among the top three in the American League, holding a somewhat comfortable 3 ½-game lead in the East with 13 games to play. All but an epic collapse would keep them from qualifying for the playoffs in back-to-back years for just the second time in franchise history.

"We try to prepare and I think we all knew coming in this was a pretty unique circumstance and that guys were probably going to go down, but even with that preparation it’s tough to wrap your head around what’s taken place,” Cash said.

“Saying that, we’re a very good team. We’ve worked through this, and we’re going to have to continue to do that. And we will.”

If they do, it will in part because of the way rookie Josh Fleming stepped into the rotation. How relievers John Curtiss, Aaron Slegers and others have navigated key innings. What Kevan Smith did behind the plate. How Nate Lowe replaces Choi. And net contributions of the 24 pitchers and 19 position players they have used through the first 47 games.

Rays reliever Aaron Slegers (57) delivers a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field on Aug. 22.
Rays reliever Aaron Slegers (57) delivers a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field on Aug. 22. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The depth the Rays always talk about as being important has been vital this season.

“All those guys have really kind of made the most out of their opportunity,” Brosseau said. "That’s what we expect. It’s not surprising by any means.

"Just based on everybody we see in spring training and kind of get a glimpse of and know what they can do. Me personally being able to see guys like Flem and Slegs last year (in the minors) when they come up here and do what they’re doing, it’s no surprise to me.

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“I know it maybe kind of catches other peoples' eyes, but I’m pretty confident anybody we put on the field is going to do the job that’s needed.”

As smart and creative as the Rays are, as thoroughly as they scout, as cleverly as they make trades, no one predicted the way this season would play out due to the pandemic, and the resulting plethora of injuries.

But they do plan for contingency after contingency, which is why they usually have good options in even the most extreme cases by acquiring, or keeping, players with experience, versatility and talent.

“Unexpected health and performance outcomes are a significant part of the game,” general manager Erik Neander said Monday. "It’s a humbling experience year-after-year and our crystal ball isn’t good enough to tell us what we’ll need in advance of any season, especially this one.

Related: Ryan Yarbrough eager to see Nationals again

“Having said that, what we do know are the types of player opportunities that we can provide heading into a camp, or at any moment really, and our staff does a wonderful job pairing the right player with each opportunity. They don’t all work out, but their efforts maximize the number of players prepared to help our major league club.”

The players in the big leagues appreciate the efforts to provide reinforcements.

"That’s what’s so great about our organization,” starter Ryan Yarbrough said. “They’re able to identify those guys and you kind of see when they bring them in and bring them into our culture what happens. They’ve been great for us, and they’re going to continue to be great for us.”

To keep the options plentiful and the pipeline flowing, the Rays are always adding young talent through trades, the draft and international signings. Lowe has a pretty good sense of what they have after spending most of this season at the Port Charlotte alternate training site, and much of 2019 in the minors.

“It’s just more credit to our scouting department, the personnel that we have here and the guys that even are sitting at home on the couch,” Lowe said. “It’s just funny how you see you’ve got those 60 guys in the pool, and then there are the next 20-30 guys below that. Our top 90 players would be the top 90 players in every organization. Our high-A and Double-A pitchers, low A guys that are down in Port Charlotte throwing 150 (mph), those are No. 1 prospects in organizations, and I really don’t even know where they rank on our list or anything like that. We’re so stacked with good players all the way through.”

Ultimately, Cash said, a lot of people had a hand in their success. The players, for what they’ve done. The coaches in the majors and at the Port Charlotte camp for getting them ready. The scouts for finding them.

And the bosses for putting it all together. “To have that depth.” he said. “To create that depth. And just have a lot of good players.”

Rays reliever Josh Fleming (61) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 10.
Rays reliever Josh Fleming (61) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 10. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Roster shuffle

Since opening Spring 2.0 camp, the Rays have been adding players to the 40-man roster to fill injury-related holes:

From within the organization:

RHP John Curtiss

LHP Josh Fleming

LHP Aaron Loup

LHP Ryan Sherriff

RHP Aaron Slegers

C Kevin Smith

RHP Ryan Thompson

(Also, LHP Sean Gilmartin, who is off the roster but remains in the player pool.)

From outside:

RHP Edgar Garcia (trade from Phillies)

OF Brett Phillips (trade from Royals)

LHP Cody Reed (trade from Reds)