Devenski excited to pitch in bulk after successful relief stint in '23

February 24th, 2024

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Rays have done this before.

Each of the past three years, Tampa Bay has identified a reliever with starting experience on his résumé, the pitch mix to turn over a lineup multiple times and both the mental and physical wherewithal to work every fifth or sixth day. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Rays transitioned them into starters who were not only effective, but critically important to their rotation.

First came Drew Rasmussen in 2021. Then it was Jeffrey Springs a year later. Last season, Zack Littell transformed from a waiver-wire reliever to a stabilizing force in the rotation.

Could be next in line? The Rays are about to find out.

The Rays picked up Devenski late last August, added him to their bullpen in September and re-signed him in December to a one-year deal with a club option for 2025. During Spring Training, he and lefty Tyler Alexander will be built up to pitch three innings. From there, they’ll either be further stretched out into starting/bulk-inning candidates or reined in as multi-inning/swingman options for the bullpen.

Devenski, who looked good facing hitters in a live batting practice session on Friday, said there was mutual interest in stretching him out when he joined the Rays last season. It didn’t make much sense to explore it at that point, manager Kevin Cash said, but they returned to the idea when he rejoined the team during the offseason.

“I think his motivation also plays a role,” Cash said. “We were excited about that.”

Devenski, 33, fits the profile in several ways. Like Rasmussen, Springs and Littell, he started in the Minors. His changeup, which accounted for more than half his pitches last season, can neutralize left-handed hitters and be effective against righties. His fastball averaged around 94 mph the last two years. He’s been working on a new slider to give him another weapon.

And he’s not going to shy away from the assignment.

“My whole Minor League career, I was a starter, so I have experience there doing that,” said Devenski, who has also started seven games in the Majors, none since 2019. “It’s something that’s in me that I’ve always taken a liking to. Let’s go with it.”

Devenski started five games for the Astros as a rookie in 2016, but he really made a name for himself as a dominant setup man during his early years in Houston. The right-hander finished fourth in the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year Award voting and made the All-Star team in ’17, when he posted a 2.68 ERA and struck out 100 in 80 2/3 innings over 62 appearances.

He’s bounced around since then, going from the Astros to the D-backs to the Phillies to the Angels before finally landing with the Rays. Devenski put together a 2.08 ERA with nine strikeouts and two walks in 8 2/3 innings over nine outings for the Rays down the stretch, then pitched two scoreless innings in their AL Wild Card Series loss to the Rangers.

“Coming back from TJ, I struggled a little bit. It took quite some time. When I came here, I felt like I turned a corner,” said Devenski, who underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery in 2020 and Tommy John surgery in ’21. “Since then, it’s been a step in the right direction every time moving forward. That’s kind of where I want to stay, and I’ll just kind of roll with that.”

Devenski has plenty of experience working multiple innings, so the true test will be when he starts pitching three innings or more. He said he wants to figure it out on his own, but he doesn’t need to look far for advice. There’s plenty to be found inside the Rays’ clubhouse at Charlotte Sports Park.

Springs and Rasmussen are recovering from elbow injuries and should return later this year. Littell made it look easier than it probably was last season, moving from the bullpen into the rotation and posting a 3.25 ERA over a 13-outing span from mid-July to late September.

Now penciled in alongside Zach Eflin and Aaron Civale as part of the Rays’ rotation, Littell said the most difficult part was adjusting to the volume of innings and finding a good routine to handle it between starts. But he said the Rays were extremely helpful throughout the process, asking what he needed to make it work and adapting as it played out.

“Super clear with what the intention is and where they want you to go with it,” Littell said. “That could be said for everything with the Rays. They’re just extremely open in communication and want to be very clear where you stand, whether you’re not feeling [it] or you are feeling great. They want to hear it.”