ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have had considerable success in signing unheralded pitchers to low-end or minor-league contracts, with Jason Adam the most recent example.
As they stock their roster ahead of next month’s opening of spring training, they are assembling another group of candidates that could potentially yield a breakthrough.
Among the most promising may be right-hander Trevor Kelley, a 30-year-old reliever who has had time in the majors with the Red Sox, Phillies and Brewers.
Also signed to minor-league deals with camp invites are right-handers Zack Burdi, Ben Heller and Elvin Rodriguez, along with veteran Heath Hembree. The Tampa Bay Times previously reported the signings of pitchers Colten Brewer and Braden Bristo and catcher Nick Dini.
Kelley, who throws from a low, sidearm-style arm slot, had a 6.08 ERA over 23-2/3 innings in 18 games during five stints with Milwaukee in 2022. More intriguing to the Rays is the 1.90 ERA he compiled at Triple-A over the 2021 (with Atlanta) and 2022 seasons, striking out 88 over 75-2/3 innings in 71 games.
Kelley was designated for assignment by the Brewers earlier this month, cleared waivers and became a free agent by declining an assignment to Triple-A. He signed with the Rays and has a minor-league option.
Rodriguez, 24, is a starter who struggled in his big-league debut season with Detroit, going 0-4 with 10.62 ERA in seven games (five starts) and allowing 12 homers in 29-2/3 innings. But he has a five-pitch repertoire, including a fastball that averaged 93 mph and ranked in the 89th percentile for spin rate. He also had a solid, albeit brief, showing in the Dominican Winter League, posting a 3.32 ERA with 23 strikeouts and eight walks in 19 innings over six games.
Burdi, 27, has limited big-league time with the White Sox and Orioles in 2020-21, compiling a 7.79 ERA in 17-1/3 innings over 15 games. He was a first-round pick by Chicago in 2016 after showing a 102 mph fastball as a closer for Louisville and reached Triple-A that season. But he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017 and has dealt with other health issues since. He pitched only 13 innings last season in Washington’s minor-league system.
Heller, 31, pitched in relief for the Yankees in 2016-17 and 2019-20, compiling a 2.59 ERA over 31 games, but missed most of the last two seasons after sustaining a stress fracture in his elbow during spring 2021 with Arizona. He made seven appearances in Minnesota’s minor-league system last year, posting a 9.35 ERA.
Hembree, 34, brings experience, having pitched in 357 big-league games over 10 seasons with the Giants, Red Sox, Phillies, Mets, Reds, Pirates and Dodgers, compiling a 21-13, 4.39 record with 11 saves. In 2022, he was a combined 3-1, 7.36 between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, allowing 26 hits and 17 walks in 22 innings, with 17 strikeouts. In 2021, with New York and Cincinnati, he struck out 83 (and walked 24) in 58 innings, posting a 5.59 ERA.
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