Rays plot how to cover for Ji-Man Choi’s absence

One big question: Whether to call up a prospect position player or carry an extra reliever.
The Rays' Ji-Man Choi, left, celebrates with first-base coach Ozzie Timmons after driving in a run during a spring game on March 9, 2021 in Port Charlotte.
The Rays' Ji-Man Choi, left, celebrates with first-base coach Ozzie Timmons after driving in a run during a spring game on March 9, 2021 in Port Charlotte. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Mar. 21, 2021|Updated Mar. 21, 2021

PORT CHARLOTTE — Manager Kevin Cash acknowledged Sunday what has seemed obvious: The Rays are planning to open the season without first baseman Ji-Man Choi, who is sidelined with a right-knee issue.

Now they have to decide how best to configure their roster, and lineup, without him.

Specifically, whether to call up one of the four position-player prospects on the 40-man roster — Vidal Brujan, Josh Lowe, Kevin Padlo, Taylor Walls — or go with only 12 position players and 14 pitchers as they open the season in Miami, and thus without a DH.

“That’s part of the discussion,’' Cash said. “The National League (rules) opening up (in Miami) presents more conversations. Not having a DH, you get an extra batter on the bench. But at the same time pitchers are not as built up as maybe they would be in May or June.’'

None of the four position players would be a great fit replacing Choi, a lefty hitter. Padlo, a right-handed hitter, is the only one with experience playing first.

Yoshi Tsutsugo, who played leftfield and third base last year, is expected to get the primary share of the playing time at first base against right-handed starters, which the Rays likely will face often early.

Cash has praised the work Tsutsugo has put in — especially in backfield sessions focusing on some of the more nuanced aspects — and the way he has played in games.

“I do feel more comfortable at first base,’' Tsutsugo said via team interpreter Brian Tobin. “I don’t know how it is going to end up, but I’m just getting prepared.’'

Mike Brosseau and Yandy Diaz, who did a Choi-like stretch/split in snagging a throw during Sunday’s game, are options against lefties. Brosseau is probably the best defender and could come in for late-inning defense.

Though Choi is still in a planned 10-day period of rest and rehab following a cortisone shot on March 13, Cash said they don’t expect him to be available.

“He’s at Day 8 right now; we talked about giving him 10 days before we started doing activity, but that seems like a little bit of a rushed deal,’' Cash said. “This is his second knee irritation of camp, so I think we’re preparing as if he will not be ready for us by opening day.”

The Rays don’t expect him to miss more than a couple of weeks and are banking that being cautious now allows Choi, who reported the knee is feeling “significantly better,” to get past the issue.

“He’s in pretty good spirits right now,’' Cash said. “We are hoping that it is a short-term thing and the information that we have right now is it should be, as long as there’s no setback.’'

Whatever amount of time Choi is out, his contributions on and off the field will be missed.

“It’s unfortunate,’' catcher Mike Zunino said “Obviously Ji-Man’s a huge part of what really gets us going. What he does for us defensively, with the at-bats he puts together, he’s a big part of that lineup. The best thing to do is do whatever we can to get him healthy as quick as we can and have him for the long haul.’'

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Added pitcher Ryan Yarbrough: “He’s a great clubhouse presence for us. On the field, brings a lot of energy. But we’ve got a lot of depth here. We have a lot of guys who can fill in right now and really step up, and a lot of guys are going to get some opportunities over there.’'

The structure of the Rays batting order is always in flux anyway, and not having Choi parked in the middle will lead to even more flexibility. Tsutsugo could hit at the top when he’s in there. Randy Arozarena, the breakout star of last postseason, is set to hit in the top three. Figure some combination of Kevin Kiermaier, Willy Adames and Zunino/Francisco Mejia at the bottom.