ST. PETERSBURG — If you were going to pick the Rays’ MVP to this point in the season, you’d likely look at one of their All-Stars, catcher Mike Zunino or do-it-all reliever Andrew Kittredge.
Depending on how the final 5½ weeks go, sluggers Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows, and reliever Collin McHugh could emerge as further options.
But it would only seem like a reach to include Kevin Ibach, their chief of pro personnel and scouting, and Anirudh Kilambi, a key member of their baseball research and development crew, in the conversation.
Because the work they and their departments did in accumulating and identifying additional bullpen depth may have as much to do with the Rays’ overall success this year as the play on the field.
“We routinely preach the importance of depth and securing talent, the best possible talent, for all the different levels of opportunity that we have going into a season, during the season, whatever may be,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say if not for the second and, probably, the third, line of our bullpen depth that we wouldn’t be leading the division without the contributions of all of them.”
As injuries have piled up at a staggering pace, the Rays have been forced to roll through pitchers in record numbers — 33 already, two more than their franchise high from 2019, with at least a few more expected soon. (Plus, three position players have pitched.)
It is because of the work of Ibach, Bobby Heck, Ryan Bristow and the scouting squad; and Kilambi, Will Cousins and the other R&D experts, that they have been able to keep filling holes and continue winning.
It’s how the Rays discover unexpected contributors such as Louis Head, who was thinking his career was over and selling solar panels in Arizona, and find value in pitchers such as Matt Wisler, who was designated for assignment by the Giants; Adam Conley, who backed out of a deal to go to Japan; and Shawn Armstrong, who had been sent to the minors by the lowly Orioles.
It’s also why it’s not a coincidence that through 125 games, the Rays have an American League-leading 77-48 record and 3.05 bullpen ERA that is the best in the majors.
“It feels like every guy we bring up just knows how to pitch … and the stuff is there,” said McHugh, an eight-year veteran who signed with the Rays as a free agent. “(Armstrong) came out the other day and he punched out the side, and you’re like, “Where’d he come from?’ Every guy that comes up is going to have something to show you.”
Drew Rasmussen knows, as he was one of those guys when he was acquired from the Brewers (with reliever J.P. Feyereisen) in the Willy Adames trade in May, then sent to Triple-A and shuttled to the majors a few times before sticking (and now moving into the rotation).
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“It goes to show how good the scouting department is here and their ability to identify talent,” Rasmussen said. “The ability for guys to just keep coming up and performing and doing their job and helping us win, it’s been awesome to see.
“It’s truly a blessing. And it’s an embarrassment of riches what we found here in our bullpen, and the ability to just plug and play and not skip a beat.”
The Rays were certainly not alone in realizing they were going to need extra pitching this season to compensate for expected injury and fatigue issues in the return to a full 162-game schedule after last year’s paused spring and delayed and abbreviated season.
But after being hit as hard, or harder, than any other team — with 18 pitchers sidelined since the opening of spring training by injury (in addition to some for COVID-related reasons) — they were going to need to make a lot of moves, big and small, popular and not, and be right on many of them, to get through it.
Taking what Neander called “an opportunistic attitude” and being resourceful, thorough and open-minded at all levels — from the scouts and numbers-crunchers finding the pitchers, the front office making the acquisitions and the coaches getting them ready — the Rays have made it work.
“You go into a year with different levels of opportunities,’’ Neander said. “You have major-league free agents and acquisitions and guys that are in Sharpie on your roster. You have guys that are going to (Triple-A) Durham to be insurance. You have guys that are just looking to get into a camp to show what they can do.
“We take an awful lot of pride in getting the best possible people for those different opportunities.”
The amount of depth the Rays accumulated has been impressive.
“I think what’s more incredible is the amount of depth that we have that’s been really good and helping us win games,” manager Kevin Cash said. “You never want to get into the position that we’ve been with pitcher injuries. But, to a man, all of them that come up here, they find a way to really contribute on many levels.”
Here are the team-record 33 pitchers (and three position players) who have been on the mound for the Rays in 2021 (listed with number of games and ERA). Those acquired during the season are marked in bold.
Andrew Kittredge 44, 1.41
Collin McHugh 27, 1.30
Ryan Yarbrough 23, 4.57
Michael Wacha 22, 5.88
Josh Fleming 21, 4.71
Louis Head 20, 3.16
Shane McClanahan 19, 3.63
Drew Rasmussen 14, 3.30
Luis Patino 12, 4.53
Chris Mazza 12, 5.24
JT Chargois 8, 0.96
Adam Conley 4, 1.93
Chris Archer 3, 4.26
Shawn Armstrong 3, 1.80
Jeffrey Springs 43, 3.43
Ryan Thompson 36, 2.38
Pete Fairbanks 34, 3.48
Matt Wisler 24, 1.98
J.P. Feyereisen 21, 2.42
Tyler Glasnow 14, 2.66
Cody Reed 12, 3.72
DJ Johnson 3, 0.00
Chaz Roe 1, 27.00
Diego Castillo 37, 2.72
Rich Hill 19, 3.87
Hunter Strickland 13, 1.69
Trevor Richards 6, 4.50
Chris Ellis 1, 0.00
Evan Phillips 1, 3.00
Sean Poppen 1, 0.00
Note: David Hess was on the active roster for one day, Aug. 21, but did not pitch.
In minors (3)
Ryan Sherriff 15, 6.23
Dietrich Enns 3, 4.70
Brent Honeywell 3, 8.31
Position players (3)
Francisco Mejia 2, 27.00
Brett Phillips 1, 9.00
Jordan Luplow 1, 9.00
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