As the Rays struck early in the offseason to add free-agent starting pitcher Zach Eflin and continue to look for ways to bolster their offense, they also felt they had a surplus with four lefty relievers and sought to address that imbalance.
They did so Wednesday, trading Brooks Raley to the Mets for left-handed starting pitching prospect Keyshawn Askew. In doing so, they opened a spot on the 40-man roster, which allowed them to acquire a right-handed reliever via the Rule 5 draft in Kevin Kelly, who will have a chance for a place in their bullpen.
Raley, 34, was signed as a free agent last offseason and had a solid showing, going 1-2 with a 2.68 ERA and six saves over 53-2/3 innings in 60 games. He held lefties to a .155 average and .482 OPS.
General manager Peter Bendix said the Rays didn’t specifically plan to trade Raley, who was older and higher paid than the others: Jalen Beeks, Colin Poche and Garrett Cleavinger, who emerged after being acquired at last year’s trade deadline. Raley earned $4.25 million last season and was due a $4.5 million in 2023, with either a $6.5 million salary or $1.25 million buyout for 2024.
When the Rays signed Raley, they did so with the intent of keeping him as they again seek to compete for a playoff spot, Bendix said from the winter meetings in San Diego.
“What has changed is the state of our bullpen,” Bendix said. “It’s a luxury to have that many strong left-handed relievers. We needed to balance that out a little bit, and this was the way that we found to do it. And we got a pitcher back that we like a lot.”
Askew, 22, was 5-0 with a 2.44 ERA in 18 games over two Class A levels last season, striking out 92 over 66-1/3 innings while being sidelined twice due to biceps tendinitis. He is a 6-foot-4 sider-armer with a fastball in the low 90s who was a 10th-round pick out of Clemson in the 2021 draft.
“He’s got really good stuff; there’s ingredients there,” Bendix said. “Certainly no guarantee that he’s going to work. But you need that pipeline of starting pitching prospects. We’ve seen what it can do for our success. And to be able to acquire somebody that we think is a pretty good starter prospect and help balance our bullpen a little bit, that was kind of the impetus for this.”
Kelly, 25, pitched at the Double- and Triple-A levels last year for Cleveland, going 5-2 with a 2.04 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 59-1/3 innings. The Rays had enough interest in him — and concern he wouldn’t be available when they picked 15th — that they paid the the Rockies to take him with the sixth pick for a prearranged trade on top of the $100,000 selection fee.
Kelly, who throws in a funky sidearm style Bendix said was “similar-ish” to Ryan Thompson, will get the chance to compete for a job, having to show he can be effective against lefties as well as righties. He features a sinker-slider mix and gets a lot of ground balls. The Rays are required to keep him on the big-league roster all year or offer him back to Cleveland for $50,000.
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“It puts a lot of pressure on that person to succeed,” Bendix said. “We’ll see how Kelly is able to perform. We didn’t take him with the intention of hiding him. We took him because we think he’s capable of getting big-league hitters out right now. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s a lot to ask of anybody who’s never done it before. But we think he’s capable of it.”
The Rays lost a player in the annual draft of non-rostered minor-leaguers, as the Padres took lefty Jose Lopez with the No. 17 pick. Lopez, 23, struck out 95 over 59-1/3 innings while working his way from Class A to Triple-A last season. He posted an 8-3 record with a 2.43 ERA and 10 saves over 42 relief outings.
In the minor-league portion of the draft, the Rays took three right-handed pitchers — Hector Perez (Orioles), Enmanuel Mejia (Pirates) and Nelson Alvarez (Yankees). They lost infielder Pedro Martinez (Phillies) and catcher Michael Berglund (Guardians).
The Rays will need to open a spot on their 40-man roster next week for Eflin, whose three-year, $40 million deal will become official once he passes his physical.
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