Rays find a starting pitcher, acquire Aaron Civale from Cleveland

The price is steep for the Rays, who give up first baseman Kyle Manzardo, one of the game’s top hitting prospects.
Cleveland Guardians starting pitcher Aaron Civale throws against the Chicago White Sox on Sunday. Now he's headed to Tampa Bay.
Cleveland Guardians starting pitcher Aaron Civale throws against the Chicago White Sox on Sunday. Now he's headed to Tampa Bay. [ NAM Y. HUH | AP ]
Published July 31, 2023|Updated Aug. 1, 2023

NEW YORK — The Rays found a way to address their biggest need on Monday in acquiring an established starting pitcher, right-hander Aaron Civale, from Cleveland.

And they showed a willingness to pay a high price to do so, giving up one of their most promising young hitters, Kyle Manzardo, a top-40 prospect in the game.

The Rays saw Civale as the right fit because of what he has already done during parts of five seasons in the majors, how well he is pitching now and what they expect him to do the rest of this year, while also having him under control for the next two seasons as well. Civale is expected to join the rotation Saturday at Detroit, taking the place of rookie Taj Bradley, who was sent back to Triple A.

“This was the most obvious need we had. ... It didn’t look like it was going to be an easy deadline to line up on what we needed most. This is the big item for us,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said from Tropicana Field.

“This is a really good pitcher that has been a really good pitcher. It’s not one where we just think it’s in front of him but it hasn’t been behind him. This is somebody that’s done it and he’s been doing it at a really, really high level here recently.”

And, as an additional benefit, Rays bosses hope the move will provide a jolt to a team that compiled the majors’ best record through the first three months of the season but struggled mightily in July, starting 5-15 before winning three of its last four, including 5-1 Monday over the Yankees.

“Our players want to win. I think the way our team is built, I think they’d all probably agree this is a way to really help us do that,” Neander said. “July has been a tough month. There’s no way around it. It’s been a really challenging month — the ball hasn’t bounced our way.

“We got a huge series win at Houston this weekend. And maybe that combined with bringing in a pitcher like Aaron can just put a little energy back in this thing and send these guys on their way, It’d be nice way for this to play out. Players play to win, we play to win. There was an opportunity to help this team right now by parting with a really good prospect and we felt it’s worth it.”

Kyle Manzardo was part of a logjam of players who can play first base for the Rays.
Kyle Manzardo was part of a logjam of players who can play first base for the Rays. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Civale, 28, will be an experienced addition to the Rays’ injury-depleted rotation, having compiled a 29-23, 3.77 record over parts of five seasons with Cleveland. After missing most of April and May with an oblique strain, Civale has been on a tremendous run, going 4-1, 2.24 in his last 11 starts, and 3-0, 1.45 over his last six including six shutout innings Sunday.

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Civale’s cutter and curveball, which according to some metrics and Cleveland manager Terry Francona is among the game’s best, are the top weapons in a six-pitch repertoire. He doesn’t throw overly hard or strike out a high amount of hitters but, much like Zach Eflin, features tremendous command.

“This is someone that can really pitch,” Neander said. “The cutter and the curveball are plus pitches that he can really work off of. He commands everything. He has a really good feel how to use this stuff. He’s been a really good pitcher, plain and simple, that we have the opportunity to have for a few years here.

“I don’t think it’s all that complicated. He’s been really effective. We needed an effective starter, and get a chance to have one for a few years.”

Civale has not been the most durable starter. He was sidelined with a sprained middle finger in 2021 and served three injured list stints last year (left glute soreness, right wrist sprain, right forearm inflammation). He hasn’t pitched more than 124 innings in any major-league season.

Civale is making $2.6 million this season in the first of three years of arbitration eligibility, and the additional control made it more palatable for the Rays to give up Manzardo.

The 23-year-old lefty swinger quickly emerged as one of the game’s top prospects with an impressive 2022 season at Class-A Bowling Green and Double-A Montgomery, ranked No. 37 by MLB Pipeline and chosen for the recent All-Star Futures Game. He was still adjusting to Triple-A pitching this season (.238, 11 homers, 38 RBIs, .784 OPS, in 73 games) when he was sidelined by a sore left shoulder in early July, but is expected to return to action soon.

The Rays do have several other left-handed hitting first basemen in the system, including Jonathan Aranda, Austin Shenton and 2022 top pick Xavier Isaac.

“He’s a really really good hitter, a really good prospect,” Neander said. “I think it’s just the cost of doing business. I think it’s made a little bit easier with (All-Star first baseman Yandy Diaz) being on an extension. You have players like Aranda, Austin Shenton is in Triple A now, you have some left-handed hitters that are making the most of opportunities here this season. That certainly helps. So an area of depth, so to speak, I think, within our system.”

With their biggest need filled, the Rays will continue to work until Tuesday’s 6 p.m. deadline at other trade options, with potential needs for relief and catching help.

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