PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays will return from Thursday’s off day with less than two weeks until their April 1 opener in Miami, a pretty good idea how most of their 26-man roster will look and a couple of small questions that could have a big impact on their start to the season.
“We definitely have decisions left to make,” manager Kevin Cash said.
The position player group is basically set.
Outfielder Brett Phillips’ hamstring strain eliminated a potential squeeze for the final spot, leaving Ji-Man Choi’s availability (right knee inflammation) the only issue. It could be solved simply by adding Choi as a 13th position player or by opening the season with 12 — 11 familiar faces, plus newly acquired catcher Francisco Mejia.
The revamped rotation seems to be lined up, though not yet in order behind opening day starter Tyler Glasnow. To start the season, the Rays are going to play the oldies, with returnee Ryan Yarbrough, who is 29; joined by free-agent additions Michael Wacha, 29; Chris Archer, 32; and Rich Hill, 41; assuming the latter three are healthy and stretched out enough.
The bulk of the bullpen is in place, too.
Heavy lifters Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo and Pete Fairbanks will be supported by Chaz Roe, Collin McHugh (another veteran addition coming off injury issues) and Cody Reed as the most likely lefty, as he has pitched well and is out of options.
That leaves two or three open spots (depending on Choi’s availability) and more than a dozen scenarios of how best to fill them.
“There’s a lot of decisions to be had in the bullpen,” Cash said.
A number of factors are in play, including handedness, ability to work multiple innings, fit and contract/roster status.
There are at least seven candidates, including left-handers Josh Fleming, Ryan Sherriff and Jeffrey Springs and righties Andrew Kittredge, Chris Mazza, Trevor Richards and Ryan Thompson.
With Anderson, Castillo, Fairbanks and Roe mostly limited to one inning or maybe four outs, Cash would like the other relievers to be able to handle more. That means versatility, flexibility, resiliency, and durability may be key elements in the Rays’ decision-making.
“To be able to throw two innings and bounce right back in a couple days and do the same thing, that would help out a lot,” Cash said.
The Rays see McHugh in that type of multi-inning role, especially with his assortment of pitches. Richards could be use similarly, maybe even more frequently, since he recovers quickly.
Assuming Reed is the first lefty, there are a couple options for a needed second. Fleming could fill a similar role to McHugh and Richards. But the Rays may prefer to have Fleming working on a starter’s schedule, since at the alternate site he would be the first option if they need help in the rotation.
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That leaves Springs, acquired from Boston at the start of spring training, and Sherriff. Springs seems better equipped to work multiple innings and has more swing-and-miss stuff.
Choi’s knee, and the readiness of Archer (who makes his second spring appearance Friday after working 1-1/3 innings in his first) and/or Hill will determine whether there is another spot open. If so, it could come down to Thompson, who is somewhat similar in style to Roe; or Kittredge, who would have to be added back to the 40-man roster, meaning someone else will have to be dropped or traded.
Another factor is the schedule, which initially lightens the load on the pitchers, then taxes them.
The Rays play their first three games under National League rules (for which they like to have an extra position player for pinch-hit duty), then have a day off. After three games in Boston, they are off again before starting a grueling stretch of 13 straight games, 30 in 31 days, 36 in 38 and 46 in 49. (They cannot call up optioned players during the first 10 days, except as injury replacements.)
Also, know this: while Rays officials appreciate the accompanying pomp and circumstance, they put much less importance on the opening day roster than players, fans or media, knowing how much change there will be over the course of the season. Especially this season, as the Rays are extremely concerned about how pitchers will handle the workload of a full season after the abbreviated 2020 and have stocked up with a stash of young power arms that will be ready to be called upon if needed.
Our best guess
Here is Rays beat writer Marc Topkin’s guess at the 26-man roster for the April 1 opener in Miami:
Starters (5): Chris Archer, Tyler Glasnow, Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, Ryan Yarbrough
Relievers (9): Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, Andrew Kittredge, Collin McHugh, Cody Reed, Chaz Roe, Trevor Richards, Jeffrey Springs
Catchers (2): Francisco Mejia, Mike Zunino
Infielders (6): Willy Adames, Mike Brosseau, Yandy Diaz, Brandon Lowe, Yoshi Tsustugo, Joey Wendle
Outfielders (4): Randy Arozarena, Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot, Austin Meadows
Injured list (2): Ji-Man Choi, Brett Phillips