ST. PETERSBURG — Monday was a welcome off day for Rays players, their first without a game since April 22. The team went 9-8 in playing 17 consecutive days while traversing the country and 17-13 in the longer run of 30 games over 31 days.
But team officials were hard at work, sorting through a number of questions — some related — that will have a significant impact on the roster.
Is it time for Tsutsugo to go?
The move seems inevitable, given how little the 29-year-old has produced since coming over from Japan last season, hitting .187 with eight homers, 29 RBIs, and a .628 OPS (.167/0-5/.462 this year). Plus, a strikeout rate of nearly 30 percent in 272 plate appearances over 77 games.
For all the reasons the pandemic-related restrictions made last year miserable for all, nothing seemed to make Tsutsugo any better this year — not his offseason program, the team’s concerted confidence-boosting in spring training or additional playing time at first base with Choi out.
The Rays seem left with no choice but to cut Tsutsugo loose — and eat the remaining $5.5 million or so on the second year of his original (pre-pandemic) two-year, $12 million contract, plus another $2.4 million to his former Yokohama team.
There is another option, and it could come down to a battle between Tsutsugo’s pride and his loyalty to the Rays.
The Rays could send Tsutsugo to the minors, under the premise of seeing if playing every day, which he hasn’t been doing in the majors, helps get him going. But because of an assignment clause in his contract, he has to agree to go. That means he may have to decide whether he’d rather take the money and be free to sign elsewhere in the majors or go home — or feels bad enough about failing for the Rays that he’s willing to try a few weeks in the less pressurized setting of Triple-A.
We’d think Choi’s return is the driving factor since that will further reduce Tsutsugo’s playing time, but Kevin Kiermaier’s absence could change the dynamic.
Is Choi ready to come off the injured list?
The lefty swinging first baseman isn’t the savior for the struggling offense he will be made out to be, but his selectiveness and occasional power should help a lineup that still ranks among the bottom third in the majors in batting average (.222), OPS (.672), homers (37) and hitting with runners in scoring position (.203).
Choi’s work at first, especially in corralling throws, is good, though Yandy Diaz has been surprisingly smooth when at first. And there is something to be said for the joy and energy Choi, who has been sidelined since spring training with a knee issue that required arthroscopic surgery, brings to the clubhouse and the field.
Whether he is ready to step in and play regularly is a tough call. He went 6-for-19 in five games for Durham, starting 1-for-10 then going 5-for-9 with two walks in his last two games — convenient as the decision nears. Manager Kevin Cash said Sunday word from the Bulls’ staff was that Choi was “pretty timed-up” and “looks very much like himself,” which was “encouraging to hear.” But Cash also said the Rays “need” to get Choi more reps, given he played in only five spring training games, so don’t be surprised if he stays with Durham a little longer.
With the Yankees starting lefty Jordan Montgomery on Tuesday, the Rays at the least may want to wait one more day, then welcome Choi back with a start against Yankees ace right-hander Gerrit Cole — against whom Choi is hitting an amazing. 476 (10-for-21) with four homers.
How best to replace Kiermaier?
Losing the “best defensive outfielder in the game,” as Kiermaier has been described, for at least a few weeks will be tough. But the Rays are actually well-positioned to cover for him, with lefty-swinging Brett Phillips and right-hander Manuel Margot both able to roam center quite well, and Randy Arozarena and Austin Meadows on the corners.
Reliever Louis Head was initially called up to replace Kiermaier, restoring the pitching staff to 14, and the Rays could roll that way with the extra arm, using Brandon Lowe, Mike Brosseau and Tsutsugo (if he’s still around) to take an occasional turn in the outfield.
Or they could bring up one of their promising position players from Durham (no, not that one) to fill in: outfielder Josh Lowe, a lefty swinger hitting .261 with three homers in five games; or speedy infielder/outfielder Vidal Brujan, a switch-hitter with a .455 average (and .571 on-base percentage), four homers and nine RBIs in six games. Another option if they prefer a right-handed hitter is bringing back corner infielder/DH Kevin Padlo, who is hitting .269 with four homers and seven RBIs in six games for the Bulls.
Typically when the Rays bring up a prospect, they want them to play regularly, and that also could factor into the decisions they have to make.
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