ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays reshaped their roster heading into Thursday’s first spring training workout with a flurry of moves, including the re-signing of reliever Oliver Drake and finalization of a one-year contract with left-handed pitcher Rich Hill.
But the bigger deal, or certainly the most surprising, was trading top catching prospect Ronaldo Hernandez to the division rival Red Sox for two relievers who had been designated for assignment, Chris Mazza and Jeffrey Springs.
General manager Erik Neander praised Hernandez but said there were multiple reasons for the trade: Hernandez’s development was hurt by the lost 2020 minor-league season; the Rays added young catchers Francisco Mejia, Blake Hunt and Heriberto Hernandez in offseason trades; and, primarily, they believe Mazza and Springs are better than they’ve shown.
“(Ronaldo Hernandez) did all that he could last year,” Neander said. “… In our opinion, he still has some work to do, but no knock on him. The depth that we have acquired certainly helps. But this is as much, I think it’s safe to say, the two pitchers we have coming back, that we like them more than most.”
By the end of the busy day, the Rays also:
• Completed the one-year, $2.5 million deal with Hill, the crafty and ultra-competitive 40-year-old who pitched last year for the Twins and the previous three for the Dodgers. Over 16 major-league seasons, and around numerous injuries, Hill has compiled a 67-44 record and 3.79 ERA.
“In the most simple terms, he has been a quality, impactful pitcher when he’s taken the ball the past several years, and that’s something that we expect to continue,” Neander said. “He’s an A-plus competitor. He’s a winner. He’s been on winning clubs and (in) winning atmospheres and has played a huge part in that. He has postseason experience. And he is the type of example you want to have with a veteran player.”
Hill has been used primarily as a starter in recent seasons and likely will be for the Rays. But Neander said he also is open to pitching behind an opener.
• Traded reliever John Curtiss, an unexpected key contributor to last year’s team, to the Marlins for minor-league first baseman Evan Edwards, a 2019 fourth-round pick from North Carolina State.
Curtiss, 27, was a non-roster invitee to spring training who was called up in August and made 17 regular-season appearances (going 3-0, 1.80) and nine more in the postseason. “I don’t think we’re playing as deep in the postseason without his contributions last year,” Neander said.
Edwards, a lefty swinger the Rays have liked, hit .281 with nine homers, 50 RBIs and a .799 OPS in his one pro season at two Class A levels.
• Re-signed Drake, whose 2020 season was abbreviated and then ended early by injury, a flexor tendon strain that knocked him off the American League Division Series roster. He was then designated for assignment and into free agency.
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The 34-year-old right-hander, who got a major-league contract for $775,000 (with $325,000 in incentives), won’t be ready to pitch until the middle of the season after a flexor repair and installation of an internal UCL brace.
“(He’s) somebody that we know what he’s capable of when he’s right, when he’s healthy,” Neander said. “(We’re)very optimistic that down the stretch … he’ll be in a position to help us.”
After pitching for a record five major-league teams in 2018, Drake found a home with the Rays in 2019. He worked 50 games after a late May callup, establishing his value as a right-hander who can get out lefty hitters. “A lefty in a righty’s body,” Neander said. Drake didn’t fare as well in 2020, making 11 appearances around a five-week-plus injured list stint due to right biceps tendinitis.
• Opened two needed spots on the 40-man roster by moving Jalen Beeks and Colin Poche, two pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery, to the 60-day injured list. The Rays can do the same with Yonny Chirinos when their one-year, $1.8 million deal with Collin McHugh is finalized in the next few days.
Even after the offseason acquisitions, dealing Hernandez (plus minor-league infielder Nick Sogard) was unexpected given the Rays’ seemingly ongoing search for a front-line starter behind the plate.
For a while, Hernandez looked to be that guy. He emerged as a top 10 Rays prospect and was ranked as high as No. 56 on Baseball America’s overall list after a 2018 breakthrough offensive season at Class A Bowling Green. But his stock and status in the organization fell after a disappointing 2019 season at advanced Class A Charlotte, and his defense remained in need of improvement.
Rather than play at Double-A in 2020, Hernandez worked out at the alternate site, as a member of the traveling taxi squad and throughout the playoffs and World Series as part of the postseason pool. Rays officials certainly knew what they had, where he was headed and what they were trading, as well as whether it was worth using a 40-man roster spot for him.
“We like Ronaldo,” Neander said. “As much as anybody, he was really a victim of the lost time last year. He’s a player that is a strong offensive catcher. Last year, the at-bats, in regular games would have done him as much good as anybody, to go out there to escape the (pitcher-friendly) Florida State League and play in more neutral ballparks. I think that probably would have done a lot of good to reestablish himself offensively, and defensively just to continue to get reps.”
Though the Sox dropped the two pitchers to clear roster spots, Neander said the Rays are confident they can make them better, Mazza in a multi-inning role and Springs as a short reliever. (The Rays also got an undisclosed amount of cash from the Red Sox.)
“They’re players that we think are going to be additive to our group and help us win,” Neander said. “The track records underneath those guys is not extensive by any means, obviously, but forward-looking on both of them, we’re optimistic that they’re better than what they’ve been.”
Mazza, 31, had a long journey to the majors, starting as a 27th-round pick by Minnesota in 2011. He was released by the Twins and Marlins, spent part of 2018 with independent league teams, signed with the Mariners and was a Rule 5 draft pick by the Mets, for whom he made his debut in June 2019. He was claimed off waivers by the Red Sox in December 2019. In 18 big-league appearances over 2019-20 (including six starts), he was 2-3, 5.05.
Springs, 28, was a 30th-round pick by the Rangers from Appalachian State who signed for $1,000 and made it to the majors three years later. He sent parts of 2018-19 with Texas, then was traded to Boston in January 2020 for first baseman/outfielder Sam Travis. In 59 appearances over three seasons, he is 5-4, 5.42 with 91 strikeouts (and 44 walks) over 84-1/3 innings.