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The three young players who may determine Rays’ 2021 fate

Pitchers Shane McClanahan and Luis Patino will have key spots in the rotation, Wander Franco a big place in the lineup.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco scores during a game against the Boston Red Sox Friday at Tropicana Field.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco scores during a game against the Boston Red Sox Friday at Tropicana Field. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Aug. 5

ST. PETERSBURG — When the Rays made the somewhat surprising and seemingly significant trade for veteran designated hitter Nelson Cruz two weeks ago, general manager Erik Neander said one of the driving reasons to make a major deal was the way some of their young players had performed to that point.

“We came into this year believing that this team was going to be competitive, would experience some transition, some young players coming in, so the turnover on the roster,” Neander said. “But the way that they’ve played put us in a position to believe that an add like this could raise our expectations to at least where they were last year. That’s why we did it.”

Having done so, along with some smaller moves leading up to last week’s deadline, the Rays now feel they are positioned to make another run to the postseason, and potentially earn that return trip to the World Series.

And they are counting on three of their youngest players to handle major roles — potential aces in 24-year-old Shane McClanahan and 21-year-old Luis Patino, and 20-year-old multitalented shortstop Wander Franco — confident that what they can do on the field offsets what they haven’t done, which is play many games in the majors.

Rays starting pitcher Shane McClanahan pitches during a recent game against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field.
Rays starting pitcher Shane McClanahan pitches during a recent game against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

“Talent supersedes experience,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Especially when you can put the right people around them and have the right teammates and support group around them.”

That circles back to Cruz, who can provide the leadership and mentorship to steer the youngsters through the pressures of playing for high stakes. The 41-year-old said the proper perspective is relatively simple.

“They have to just approach the game one at a time,” Cruz said. “Just take care of whatever’s in front of you that day. You don’t worry about what’s going on tomorrow, just focus on what we have today. And that’s the way we should approach it. They’ve been doing a great job. Just go out there and do what’s in front of them on a daily basis. Nothing else has to change.”

Plus, as Cash suggested, the young players being really good helps.

McClanahan is the hard-throwing lefty from USF who made a historic debut in the 2020 postseason pitching in relief, came up in May this year and (despite just 16 big-league starts and 77 innings, plus 4-1/3 last year) has evolved somewhat quickly into the Rays’ No. 1 starter, with a 5-4 record and 3.74 earned-run average.

Patino is the dazzling right-hander acquired from San Diego as the centerpiece of the return for Blake Snell, who impressed enough at Triple-A that the Rays decided last month to create a spot for him in the rotation, trading veteran Rich Hill to do so. Patino is 2-3, 4.42 overall in nine games, and the Rays expect him to be more comfortable, confident and better as he goes.

“They’re really talented,” Cruz said of the dynamic duo. “The future is very bright for the Rays; seems like they’re going to be here for a while. The way they’re pitching at the young age, they look very mature and very confident. The way they pitch, and the way they approach even between starts, what they do, it’s remarkable.”

Cruz, 41, is similarly impressed with Franco, who was born the same year Cruz started his pro career, 2001, and has been warming after an extended adjustment period, hitting .244 with three homers, 14 RBIs and a .696 OPS in 32 games.

Rays starting pitcher Luis Patino pitches Tuesday against the Seattle Mariners at Tropicana Field.
Rays starting pitcher Luis Patino pitches Tuesday against the Seattle Mariners at Tropicana Field. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

“He’s going to be really good,” Cruz said. “It’s just a matter of time to learn just to play. That’s the whole thing. Stay healthy. Make sure you go out there every day.”

Pitcher Ryan Yarbrough, another of the Rays’ veterans at age 29, said the young players are worthy of the faith being placed in them.

“Absolutely, 100 percent, I definitely believe that,” he said. “We look at it as all positive. Just based on pure stuff-wise. You take that over anything every day.

“You saw McClanahan, first time Sunday night game, humongous crowd, I think it was his first time ever seeing the Red Sox. And he went out and dominated. So I think that’s kind of how you look at these things.

“Wander has been playing great ball, and Patino has been throwing really well,” Yarbrough continued. “So you just look at those things and you understand that they’re going to help us along this postseason path.”

Maybe even all the way to the end.

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