ST. PETERSBURG -- With their roster already racked by injuries, the Rays lost another key part of their pitching staff on Friday.
Tampa Bay placed high-leverage reliever Pete Fairbanks on the 10-day injured list with a right rotator cuff strain amid a flurry of roster moves before opening a three-game series against the Yankees at Tropicana Field. The Rays also reinstated outfielder Brett Phillips from the IL, called up reliever Hunter Strickland from the alternate training site and designated catcher Joseph Odom for assignment.
Losing Fairbanks is yet another tough blow for a Rays bullpen already without high-leverage reliever Nick Anderson (partially torn right elbow ligament), right-hander Chaz Roe (strained shoulder) and lefty Ryan Sherriff (restricted list). Tampa Bay is also playing without starting center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (left quad strain) and first baseman Ji-Man Choi (right knee inflammation).
“The whole thing is not ideal. I mean, there's no denying that, no getting around it,” manager Kevin Cash said of Fairbanks’ injury. “He's a big, big part of helping us win games, along with some other guys that are now on the shelf. So you've just got to kind of take that approach of, we're going to have to come together a little bit better than we were already doing.”
Cash said that Fairbanks will be shut down from throwing for two to three weeks, and the right-hander said he expects to miss about a month. Fairbanks said he’d never dealt with a shoulder injury before, although he’s undergone Tommy John surgery twice, so he was relieved to hear the projected return timetable for what he called a “mild strain.”
Fairbanks recorded four outs during the Rays’ 6-5 loss to the Red Sox in Boston on Tuesday, finishing the seventh inning and working the eighth. He said he woke up sore on Wednesday and couldn’t play catch before the series finale at Fenway Park.
Fairbanks’ absence, combined with that of Anderson's, leaves Diego Castillo as the Rays’ top high-leverage reliever. Tampa Bay doesn’t designate one pitcher as the closer, so it’s possible that a variety of players could work in the ninth inning moving forward. But expect to see Castillo on the mound in the biggest spots of the game, whether that’s in the seventh, eighth or ninth. The Rays will also need other relievers to step forward, with Andrew Kittredge and Cody Reed among those likely to take on bigger roles.
“It's a talented bunch still. I don't think that has changed,” Fairbanks said. “And I'm sure that whatever situation is thrown at them, they'll go out there and record their outs.”
Cash said the Rays have seen good things from Strickland, the veteran reliever signed to a Minor League deal in February, despite his rough Spring Training performance. The 32-year-old right-hander was pitching at the club’s alternate training site in Port Charlotte, Fla. Strickland owns a career 3.23 ERA, although he’s struggled in the last two years after a strong run in San Francisco from 2014-18.
“Hunter made some nice adjustments. His velo ticked up. The slider ticked up, velocity-wise, and he showed the ability to land it in the zone in any count,” Cash said. “Talking to [pitching coach] Rick Knapp down there at the [alternate training] site that he's in a really good spot, so whatever took place over the last 10 days seems very encouraging. Even when we reassigned him, he went right to work with some of the messages, and he's a guy that's got back-end experience, Major League experience -- probably something that we could benefit from right now, given what's taken place in the bullpen.”
Phillips began the season on the IL after being diagnosed with a Grade 1 strain in his left hamstring during Spring Training. While rehabbing at the Rays’ alternate training site, Phillips played in games against the Marlins and Blue Jays earlier this week to test his leg before joining the team on Friday.
Phillips will give the Rays another outfield option -- along with Randy Arozarena, Austin Meadows and Manuel Margot -- while Kiermaier is sidelined. Phillips was immediately thrust into the lineup on Friday, batting eighth and starting in center field.
“They trusted me when I told them that I was hurting, so they're going to trust me when I tell them that I'm healthy,” Phillips said. “It's a big year for my career, and so I wanted to make sure I took that time to get fully healed before I came back. Maybe I could have come back a week ago, I don't know. But if anything, the extra time gave me a chance to heal up.”
The Rays activated Odom from their taxi squad last Saturday to replace Sherriff. They didn’t intend to carry three catchers for long, and they acquired additional depth behind the plate on Tuesday by claiming catcher Deivy Grullón off waivers from the Reds. Grullón will report to the alternate training site after clearing COVID-19 intake protocols, the Rays announced Friday.