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Send the Rays your tired, your poor ... and watch them thrive

John Romano | Tampa Bay’s front office has a knack for finding players with singular talents, then teaching them how to resurrect their careers.
In a span of two months last season, Tampa Bay's Ryan Sherriff went from virtual obscurity to pitching for the Rays in the World Series.
In a span of two months last season, Tampa Bay's Ryan Sherriff went from virtual obscurity to pitching for the Rays in the World Series. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 24
Updated Mar. 24

PORT CHARLOTTE — Like any new employee, Cody Reed got a packet of material his first day on the job.

But instead of insurance and payroll deductions, his binder was a comprehensive mix of pitching data and illustrations from his time with the Cincinnati Reds. Not to mention his years in the Royals’ minor-league system. Even his days at Northwest Mississippi Community College.

This was his introduction to the Rays way of doing things, via pitching coach Kyle Snyder and bullpen coach Stan Boroski. Reed had been designated for assignment by the Reds a few days before being traded to Tampa Bay for a Class A pitching prospect last August. The folder Boroski and Snyder gave him included information the Rays’ front office had been compiling on Reed since 2012.

The binder had several purposes. Its size was meant to convey how seriously the Rays had been studying his career. Its information was designed to show Reed that he had the ability to pitch effectively in the majors. And its ultimate purpose was to convince Reed that a small adjustment to his pitching style was all he would need to thrive in Tampa Bay’s bullpen.

Essentially, the Rays wanted him to stop trying to throw perfect pitches and be more aggressive getting ahead in the count.

Cody Reed throws a bullpen session during a workout day for pitchers and catchers at Charlotte Sports Park in February.
Cody Reed throws a bullpen session during a workout day for pitchers and catchers at Charlotte Sports Park in February. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]

“They told me, ‘Hey, you throw two seam (fastballs) in the zone and guys don’t hit it very hard. So we don’t care where it’s at, just throw it over the plate,’ ” Reed said. “I don’t think it gets more simple than that. I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ They said when you get to two strikes, throw that slider and you’ll get some swing-and-misses. That’s the game plan I’ve taken since Day One being here.”

Will it work for Reed? Time will tell. He had a career 5.44 ERA in 122 big-league innings when he arrived in Tampa Bay and quickly retired eight of the first nine batters he faced last summer before a finger injury ended his season. This spring, he retired the first 15 batters he faced.

Related: Can this Rays offense steal a few headlines from its pitchers?

That’s an incredibly small sample size, but it’s also a snapshot of how Tampa Bay is so adept at finding success in unlikely places. There is no franchise in baseball that has done a better job of re-imagining the careers of players stuck at a crossroads.

Reed. Ryan Thompson. Ryan Sherriff. John Curtiss. Aaron Slegers. Oliver Drake. They all logged innings for Tampa Bay’s bullpen last season after having been designated, released, left unprotected or otherwise cut loose by their former teams.

The Rays are baseball’s version of the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. They take the players that other teams discard and, instead of focusing on their inadequacies, love them for who they are.

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It’s inspired, it’s brilliant, it’s also necessary. The Rays don’t have the revenues of most of their rivals in the American League East, and so they need to get production out of a lot of lower-salaried players. General manager Erik Neander and his staff look for players who may not have a complete package of skills, but do one or two things well enough that they can thrive in the right situations.

“Erik and the front office do such a good job of allowing the type of players you’re describing a little clearer path,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “A little better lane for opportunity.”

Ryan Sherriff throws a bullpen session during a workout day for pitchers and catchers at Charlotte Sports Park in February.
Ryan Sherriff throws a bullpen session during a workout day for pitchers and catchers at Charlotte Sports Park in February. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]

This can work in a number of different ways. The data can show that a pitcher is relying too much on one pitch when he has more effective weapons in his repertoire. Or the video shows his windup might be too long. Or the front office staff spots a minor leaguer in another organization who might be a hidden gem because his metrics outshine his traditional statistics

Sherriff had spent parts of eight seasons in the Cardinals organization before being released late in 2018. A left-hander whose fastball topped out around 91 mph, the Rays were intrigued with Sherriff’s ability to get groundballs.

He finally made his way to Tampa Bay’s big-league bullpen last August and was warming up for his first appearance when Boroski suggested he move over to the third base side of the pitching rubber. Sherriff eventually would throw 11.2 innings of shutout ball in 2020, including the postseason, picking up his first win since 2017 and his first big-league save.

“I just took his word for it, to be honest with you. I had nothing to lose at that point. I was just happy that I made it back to the big leagues,” Sherriff said. “I honestly don’t know (why it worked) but it changed my career.”

Related: A ‘puddle of tears’ changed Rays’ Ryan Thompson’s life

The Rays tend to dole out information based on the player’s preference. Some want detailed information on the strategy, and devour the information in front of them. Others just want it explained in simple terms for them to execute.

“It all starts with scouting and the analytics departments who have kind of married traditional scouting thoughts with a look under the hood that we didn’t have five years ago because of the advanced analysis,” said Snyder. “Our front office will notice certain things that jump off the page, whether it’s a velo increase or a pitch that should be used more than the player is using it now.

“We’ve been able to boil it down pretty good and I think that’s where the (success) rate stems from. It’s really what our front office and scouting departments are able to identify, even in obscure places. The next thing you know, guys are in the big leagues making an impact.”

Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi extends to make the play at first and get out the Red Sox's Christian Arroyo during a spring training game.
Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi extends to make the play at first and get out the Red Sox's Christian Arroyo during a spring training game. [ DIRK SHADD ]

The Rays have been doing this for a decade or more. Carlos Pena had been with five organizations in six years before showing up in Tampa Bay and hitting 46 home runs. Joaquin Benoit had a 4.79 career ERA in parts of eight seasons before posting a 1.34 ERA in the Rays bullpen.

Ji-Man Choi had been with five organizations and looked like a part-time DH before rediscovering himself as a first baseman in Tampa Bay.

“He had been a switch hitter, he had been a catcher, he had been through a lot. It was the perfect storm of him coming here and being allowed to be himself,” said hitting coach Chad Mottola. “He had the bat speed, he had the right decision-making at the plate, he had all the ingredients. There wasn’t one particular mechanical thing, it was just letting him get comfortable in his own skin.”

Related: Three years later, the legend of Brent Honeywell begins anew

There have been plenty of misses along the way, but the cost is almost always low and the upside is frequently high. The offseason may not have the same screaming headlines as a Chicago, New York or San Diego, but the results have been evident come September.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.