Head's birthday gift: a call to the Majors

April 23rd, 2021

After being released by the Mariners last May, wondered if his professional baseball career was over. No Major League teams reached out during the summer. The only offers he received were to play independent ball, which he couldn’t afford to do financially. He stayed ready, training throughout the offseason, but he also prepared for the possibility that, after eight seasons in the Minors, he’d never reach the big leagues.

For about four months, Head went door to door selling solar panels in Arizona. Then the Rays called, offering the right-hander a Minor League contract that included an invitation to Major League Spring Training.

“I thought it might have been a prank at first,” Head said.

It wasn’t. Nor was the call he received Thursday night from Triple-A Durham manager Brady Williams. And on Friday, his 31st birthday, Head walked into Tropicana Field having finally arrived in the Majors.

"I was trying not to cry, to be honest,” Head said. “I mean, excitement. Pretty much just 10 years of work, all compiling into emotions for one day."

Head’s feel-good promotion was one of three roster moves the Rays made before Friday’s series opener against the Blue Jays. They also placed high-leverage reliever on the COVID-19-related injured list due to side effects from his vaccination and recalled right-hander less than 24 hours after optioning Mazza to the alternate training site in Port Charlotte, Fla.

Manager Kevin Cash said the Rays are checking in frequently with Castillo, hoping he will recover quickly and return “pretty soon” from his vaccine-related absence, potentially even on Saturday. Castillo does not count against the Rays’ 40-man roster while on the COVID-19-related IL, which gave them a spot to add Head without removing another player.

With Castillo temporarily inactive, the Rays have essentially seen their entire planned Opening Day bullpen sidelined one way or another since the last week of Spring Training. Nick Anderson (right elbow) and Chaz Roe (right shoulder) are on the 60-day IL. Ryan Sherriff is on the restricted list. Pete Fairbanks (right shoulder), Collin McHugh (lower back) and Cody Reed (left thumb) are on the 10-day IL. And now Castillo, who recorded four of the Rays’ first six saves this season, is on the COVID-19 IL.

“When you take a guy out, yes, it hurts, but we've got confidence that there's some other guys in there that can step up and help get some big outs,” Cash said.

As frustrating as that has been for Tampa Bay, which relies heavily on a typically deep bullpen, it has created opportunities for pitchers like Head. The reliever pitched well for the Rays in Spring Training, striking out nine batters while walking one and giving up only one run on three hits in six innings over seven outings. He said the Rays liked his underlying metrics, and pitching coach Kyle Snyder helped him create a more horizontal-breaking slider that complements his fastball, gets more swinging strikes and makes “a world of a difference” in his performance, Head said.

“He made a strong impression in Spring Training,” Cash said. “We just saw a lot of strike-throwing intent out of him, and that's ultimately what you want to see. … I think he thought that potentially, he might have been out of baseball until he got a call from us, and he's in the big leagues now. So that's pretty cool. And hopefully, he can get in there in whatever role and help us win.”

Head made 75 appearances in Triple-A, and there were times he thought he was close to being called up. The long-awaited moment came for him on Friday, when he rode north with Brent Honeywell Jr. from his place in Sarasota, Fla., “still in shock” from Williams’ call, operating on about an hour of sleep and overwhelmed by the birthday gift of a lifetime.

“I don’t know if I’ve gotten a better one, to be honest,” he said.

Injury updates
• First baseman (right knee surgery) took batting practice and fielded ground balls at The Trop on Friday afternoon. As his rehab work progresses, the Rays will figure out how to get him at-bats in game action, a necessary step given how much time he missed in Spring Training. Choi is still likely to return in early to mid-May.

“You can feel that it's getting closer,” Cash said.

• Right-hander Chris Archer (lateral forearm tightness) is playing light catch, Cash said, and remains a few weeks away from returning due to the time it will take for him to rebuild his workload to the point he can pitch five innings.

• Fairbanks (strained right rotator cuff) is “recovering nicely” and perhaps even more quickly than anticipated, Cash said. The initial expectation when Fairbanks went on the 10-day IL on April 9 was that he’d miss about a month.

• McHugh (lower back strain) threw off the mound on Friday and said he felt good, according to Cash. He will likely throw another bullpen session in a few days to gauge how he’s recovering.

• Reed (left thumb weakness) received a Botox injection, as expected. Cash said it should be a “pretty quick turnaround” for the lefty to resume throwing.