The Rays are nearly ready to add another big arm to the back end of their bullpen.
After reinstating left-hander Cody Reed from the 10-day injured list on Saturday, the Rays will likely activate high-leverage right-hander Pete Fairbanks at some point during their four-game series against the Angels, which began Monday night in Anaheim. Fairbanks threw about a dozen pitches in a simulated game on Monday afternoon at Angel Stadium, Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
“He looked really, really good in the sim game,” Cash said. “Checked all the boxes. He felt good.”
Cash said the Rays will re-evaluate Fairbanks, who’s been on the 10-day IL since April 9 due to a strained right rotator cuff, on Tuesday. The right-hander pitched a simulated inning on Saturday and took Sunday off before pitching again Monday, so depending on how he feels Tuesday, it might be realistic to expect a return to action as soon as Wednesday.
Fairbanks figured to be one of the Rays’ most important relief arms entering the season after posting a 2.70 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings over 27 appearances during the regular season last year. With him and Nick Anderson injured, Diego Castillo has picked up the highest-leverage work, while relievers like Andrew Kittredge, Ryan Thompson and Jeffrey Springs stepped into bigger roles.
Right-hander Collin McHugh (low back strain) also appears to be nearing a return, albeit not quite as soon as Fairbanks. Cash said McHugh will likely pitch another two-inning simulated game on Wednesday in Anaheim after doing so Sunday at Tropicana Field.
Series of reunions
The Rays’ four-game series against the Angels is only the third time they have faced former manager Joe Maddon, with the other two prior series coming while Maddon was managing the Cubs: July 4-5, 2017, at Wrigley Field and Sept. 19-20, 2017, at Tropicana Field. The only active Ray who played under Maddon is center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, but Maddon said he still closely follows the ballclub.
“They're really near and dear to my heart, absolutely, the Rays and everything about them,” Maddon said Monday. “So happy for their success. But right now, we're looking for that to be very non-successful for four days.”
The Rays will see another familiar face on Tuesday night, when right-hander Alex Cobb is expected to start for the Angels. Cobb pitched for Tampa Bay from 2011-17, spent three seasons in Baltimore then reunited with Maddon in February. Kiermaier spoke highly of Cobb as a pitcher and as a veteran who helped young players feel comfortable in the Rays’ clubhouse, and Cash also praised the “level-headed” Cobb for his perspective and the role he played in Cash’s early years as Rays manager.
“Somebody that I valued and I know our organization valued,” Cash said. “He was great with the younger pitchers, and certainly, obviously, he had a lot of success here.”
In Sunday’s 5-4 win over the Astros, the Rays essentially used two starting pitchers in the same game: Rich Hill for three innings and 44 pitches to begin the game, then Michael Wacha for eight outs and 48 pitches after Hill. Cash said the Rays could be similarly creative moving forward, specifically with Hill.
“I think we could check with Rich and see how he feels bouncing back, and there might be times where we don't wait for the fifth day to pitch Rich,” Cash said. “Similar to kind of how we're having [Luis] Patiño [be] somewhat fluid, we might utilize a little bit of a floating sequencing for some guys on our pitching staff while we're a little nicked up and we're working [through] coming back from injuries.
“So it'll be kind of day-to-day discussions, but talking to Rich today, he felt really good after his three-inning outing and felt like, if we needed him to go earlier, he would be totally equipped to do that.”
The Rays have seven starting/bulk-inning pitchers on their current roster: Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan, Hill, Wacha and Patiño. So they can potentially use a few of them in shorter bursts together as a way of giving opposing hitters different looks in one game -- like the lefty Hill and righty Wacha on Sunday, or the lefty McClanahan and the righty Patiño last Thursday -- while managing their pitchers’ workloads coming off a pandemic-shortened season.
The Rays’ four full-season Minor League affiliates will begin their seasons on Tuesday. Tampa Bay has the top-rated farm system in baseball, and most of the club’s top prospects -- including No. 1 overall prospect Wander Franco -- will officially be in action for the first time since 2019 when they take the field on Tuesday.
The Rays’ probable Opening Day starters are Triple-A Durham right-hander Chris Ellis, Double-A Montgomery righty Shane Baz, High-A Bowling Green righty Peyton Battenfield and Low-A Charleston lefty John Doxakis.
With the Minor League season beginning, the Rays carried only catcher Kevan Smith on their taxi squad for the seven-game West Coast swing through Anaheim and Oakland.