ST. PETERSBURG — In Tuesday’s game against the Rockies, the 127th in a season of high expectations, the Rays started Rene Pinto at catcher, Curtis Mead at third base and Osleivis Basabe at shortstop, and used Jonathan Aranda as a pinch-hitter.
All are promising, relatively young, players. All spent most of the season at Triple-A Durham.
And all have gotten opportunity in key, down-the-stretch games for a team with one of the league’s best records that is in a battle to win the American League East. (Mead was since sent down and replaced by another young player, the more versatile Vidal Brujan.)
Tuesday’s starter was Zach Littell, who was claimed off waivers in May as a reliever, and didn’t look likely to stick around long until joining a rotation wrecked by injuries.
One of the pitchers used out of the bullpen, Robert Stephenson, was acquired in a June trade. Two others, Andrew Kittredge and Shawn Armstrong, spent a chunk of the year on the injured list.
The point is to illustrate how much things have changed — or, more specifically — have had to change this season, and how the Rays have persevered and remained extremely competitive.
Of the 26 players on the opening day roster, only 13 were active as of Friday.
Three of their top five starters, two-time All-Star Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen, sustained elbow injuries that required season-ending surgery. Reliever Garrett Cleavinger was similarly lost to a knee injury.
Infielder Taylor Walls, outfielder Manuel Margot and reliever Kevin Kelly are sidelined with shorter-term injuries and expected back in September.
Catcher Francisco Mejia was designated for assignment. Relievers Josh Fleming, Jalen Beeks and Calvin Faucher were sent to Triple A. Reliever Ryan Thompson was as well, and then released.
And shortstop Wander Franco was placed on administrative leave by Major League Baseball while allegations of a relationship with one or more minors are being investigated.
The Rays have already used 36 pitchers, one shy of the team record (and not counting the three position players who have thrown), and 54 players total (that record is 61).
The Rays are used to a lot of change. Offseason moves with key players are somewhat standard, and in-season shuffling to maximize the lineup and roster on a daily basis, such as routinely bringing up fresh bullpen arms, is part of their coda for competing against bigger payrolled teams.
But having so many key players sidelined or shipped out, as well as so much depth being needed in season, has been extreme.
“It’s been fast-forwarded this year,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said.
Starter Zach Eflin, a free-agent addition from the Phillies, has been impressed by how they have handled all the changes.
“In my career, it’s probably the most I’ve seen,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to step up and do your job and do everything you can to stay healthy and stay on the field.
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“I think the thing with this game nowadays is that it’s the entire system that’s going to win the World Series. It’s the entire system that’s going to get you to the playoffs. It’s not going to be just the 26 guys who start the season.
“Depth is so important at this level. To be able to have guys come up and immediately produce like Basabe, Pinto and Aranda, all these guys coming up and filling holes, it’s just special. You’ve got to have that on a winning team.”
The Rays are still looking for a new stadium, but there are other teams with apparent issues: The White Sox (who got their current stadium after threatening a move to St. Petersburg) are seeking another new home and reportedly are considering Nashville; the A’s submitted their application to move to Las Vegas to a relocation committee including owners of the Brewers and Royals (who conveniently want new stadiums/upgrades themselves) and Phillies; and the Orioles are crying poor, with owner John Angelos telling the New York Times they’d “have to raise the prices massively” to keep their young core intact, and that “the hardest thing to do in sports is be a small-market team in baseball and be competitive because everything is stacked against you — everything.”
With Mejia dropped from the roster and Luis Patino traded (to the White Sox for $100,000), the Rays’ remaining return from the Blake Snell trade is starting prospect Cole Wilcox (2-8, 5.78 at Double A in his first full season post-Tommy John surgery) and catcher Blake Hunt (.256, 12 HRs, 41 RBIs, .815 OPS between Double and Triple A). … A fog machine has been added to the flashing lights and disco ball for the clubhouse victory celebrations. … Look for Taj Bradley to join the rotation by Sept. 5. … Guesses for next year’s Rays Hall of Fame inductees? Fred McGriff? Dave Wills? James Shields? Evan Longoria is an automatic if he retires. … First baseman Xavier Isaac, the Rays’ 2022 first-round pick recently promoted to High-A Bowling Green, moved into mlb.com’s Top 100 prospects list, joining infielders Junior Caminero (6th), Carson Williams (19th), Curtis Mead (36th). … Aranda and his fiancé did a home-plate gender reveal after Tuesday’s game, his swing breaking open a ball filled with pink powder. Their baby girl is due in February. … The Rays were going to take advantage of the short trip and fly to Miami the morning of Tuesday’s game, but given the potential impact of the tropical depression will travel Monday afternoon. … After his game-winning homer Thursday, Josh Lowe gave a dugout hug, then an on-air shoutout to Bally Sports Sun cameraman, and always affable, DJ Moore. … Not trading several top prospects for Shohei Ohtani seems to have worked out. … The grounds crew wore T-shirts Friday in honor of Zach Mathews’ 15th year on the job. … Good to see Toby Hall on Rays TV and radio last week; he’d be a good choice to rep the team more. … ESPN.com’s Roberto Jose Andrade Franco had an interesting, details-rich profile on Randy Arozarena’s journey to the majors. … First baseman Kyle Manzardo, traded to Cleveland for Aaron Civale, started playing at Triple-A Columbus on Thursday, having recovered from the left shoulder strain that sidelined him in early July. … Cool to see Parker Meadows, younger brother of ex-Ray Austin, make his first big-league homer a walkoff for the Tigers.
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