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How quickly is time running out on Rays’ Yoshi Tsutsugo?

Rays Tales | A slow start to his second season could mean an exit is tied to Ji-Man Choi’s May return. Plus, rumblings.
Yoshi Tsutsugo strikes out during Monday's game against the Rangers at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
Yoshi Tsutsugo strikes out during Monday's game against the Rangers at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 17, 2021|Updated Apr. 17, 2021

NEW YORK — A disappointing start to the season after an encouraging spring training has put Yoshi Tsutsugo on the clock in several ways.

• First, to stay in the Rays’ lineup.

Tsutsugo began the season as the first baseman against right-handed starters and leadoff hitter. But after his slow start at the plate became a bigger concern (6-for-39 with one extra-base hit and a staggering 39.5-percent strikeout rate entering Friday), he was dropped in the order. And as the game sped up on him in the field, he was replaced more often at first by Yandy Diaz.

With centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier returning from the injured list Saturday, the Rays have another left-handed bat to get into the lineup. With Brett Phillips then freed up to play elsewhere in the outfield, the Rays can push Austin Meadows into the designated hitter slot, which could force Tsutsugo further down the bench.

• Second, to stay on the Rays’ roster.

Yes, the Rays are paying Tsutsugo $7 million in the second half of what (pre-pandemic) was a two-year, $12 million contract, plus another $2.4 million paid to his former Yokohama team in Japan.

But, eventually, the Rays may decide Tsutsugo is a lost cause and that it is lost money. At some point, the size of the paycheck can’t warrant hurting the team by keeping him around if he doesn’t deserve to be there and they don’t think he’ll get better.

Could that decision be coming soon?

Ji-Man Choi, the primary left-handed-hitting first baseman, is targeted for an early-mid-May return from spring arthroscopic knee surgery. The roster spot the Rays will need for Choi, assuming there are no other injuries, could well be what makes Tsutsugo expendable. (Phillips is out of options and they seem to want to keep him, which leaves infielder Mike Brosseau as the other candidate to be sent down.)

There could be a parallel to the departure of another failed free-agent addition, Pat Burrell, in 2010. After a bad 2009 season to open his two-year, $16 million deal, Burrell got off to another slow start and was released in mid-May. (He then signed with the Giants and won a World Series.)

The Rays could try an interim step first with Tsutsugo by optioning him to their alternate site or Triple-A Durham, which is slated to start May 4, to see if he can salvage his swing and his confidence. (Though Tsutsugo, due to an assignment clause in his contract, has to agree to go. Otherwise, he can ask for his release, getting his money and the chance to sign elsewhere or go home.)

Another option for the Rays would be to try to trade Tsutsugo, offering to eat some or most of the money to at least recoup a prospect or fringe piece of some sort.

• Third, to stay off the list of the team’s worst free-agent signings

Most, as you’d guess, were from the Devil Rays days. And right from the start, when they gave Wilson Alvarez a five-year, $35 million deal and got only 17 wins for it, as he missed two full seasons with injuries. The biggest blur on current management’s mark is Burrell, who they got from the Phillies, though bringing back Grant Balfour (for two years, $12 million) in 2014 didn’t work out too well, either.

Swing, and a miss

Pat Burrell lasted a season plus six weeks with the Rays, batting .218.
Pat Burrell lasted a season plus six weeks with the Rays, batting .218.
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Here’s a list of arguably the worst free-agent signings in Rays history, which tend to be graded in correlation with the money paid:

Season Player Contract

1998 LHP Wilson Alvarez $35 million, five years

Payoff: Went 17-26, 4.62, making only 63 starts after being signed as the ace

2000 RHP Juan Guzman $12.5 million, two years

Payoff: Got five outs before leaving first game with sore shoulder, never returned

2000 OF Greg Vaughn $34 million, four years

Payoff: Signed as part of the “Hit Show” but was a big miss, released in spring 2003

2009 OF/DH Pat Burrell $16 million, two years

Payoff: Wasn’t comfortable in DH role and made others uncomfortable, hit .218

2014 1B James Loney* $21 million, three years

Payoff: Dropped off after solid 2013 that earned deal, dropped in spring 2016

(* Re-signed with Rays as a free agent)

Short stops

This is the very-Rays like Red Sox jersey in the new Nike City Connect series.
This is the very-Rays like Red Sox jersey in the new Nike City Connect series. [ Nike ]

• Maybe the Chaim Bloom Red Sox are trying too hard to be like the Rays: They now have a very Rays-like yellow-and-blue alternate jersey as part of the Nike City Connect series that is supposed to be linked to the Boston Marathon color scheme.

• Question I’m not sure Rays executives know the answer to: What is more concerning about the first two weeks: the offense, the pitching or the injuries?

• Interesting point raised by catcher Mike Zunino during the Rangers series about the additional challenge of facing pitchers the Rays haven’t seen recently or at all, given that teams played only regional schedules last year and the Rangers (and Royals, who they play next) train in Arizona.

Rays rumblings

San Diego Padres pitcher Blake Snell delivers during a game against the Pirates Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
San Diego Padres pitcher Blake Snell delivers during a game against the Pirates Tuesday in Pittsburgh. [ GENE J. PUSKAR | AP ]

Randy Arozarena, as Jayson Stark pointed out in The Athletic, is the first player in history to hit 10 postseason homers before his 10th in the regular season, which he did Sunday. … In his first three starts for the Padres, ex-Ray Blake Snell has gone 4-2/3 innings (86 pitches), 5 innings (87) and 2/3 of an inning (38). … Kaden Waechter, the 13-year-old son of Rays TV analyst/former pitcher Doug, had a special first high school start, throwing a five-inning no-hitter with 11 strikeouts for Admiral Farragut against Gibbs. And as a seventh-grader. … A four-man outfield alignment against Texas’ Joey Gallo became even more extreme at times, with six defenders (all but first baseman Diaz) on the turf. … You’re not hearing things: the Rays are using MLB-provided piped-in crowd noise for lesser-attended games. … The Rays played Thursday night and thus didn’t get to New York until early Friday morning to be part of the league-wide Jackie Robinson Day activities. … The 34 players and 19 pitchers used through Thursday were most in the majors. … Commissioner Rob Manfred check out the Blue Jays’ temporary digs in Dunedin Wednesday but didn’t make it to the Trop. … Though hoping to return to Toronto, the Jays are preparing for a potential June move from Dunedin to Buffalo, N.Y., proactively relocating their Triple-A team from there to Trenton, N.J. The Class A Dunedin team will bounce around while the big-leaguers use TD Ballpark. … The odd play in the seventh inning against Texas Wednesday actually featured two replay reviews: a crew chief look first to see if Adolis Garcia’s ball went over the fence (it didn’t), then the Rays’ request to look at the safe call at home, which was overturned.

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