Where Rays' key position battles stand now

March 17th, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG -- For the most part, general manager Erik Neander and manager Kevin Cash have a pretty good idea of who will be on the 26-man roster whenever baseball resumes.

But like every team, the Rays still have some decisions at the end of the roster. While the regular season has been pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Rays got a good look at some key position battles over the past four-plus weeks.

Though we don’t know how things will shake out, or if anything will be different when play resumes, let’s take a look at where things stand with the two key position battles for the Rays.

Backup catcher

Mike Zunino will be one of the two catchers on the roster, but the Rays will have to decide between Michael Perez, Kevan Smith and Chris Herrmann for the other backstop. Heading into camp, Perez appeared to have a leg up on the competition because of his experience with the Tampa Bay pitching staff. Perez has played in parts of two seasons with the Rays and was on the Opening Day roster in 2019, but injuries have been an issue. The Rays would also like to see an uptick in production at the plate from Perez, and the Puerto Rican catcher showed flashes of it in camp, smashing two home runs and finishing with an .844 OPS in nine games.

“Mikey is a very talented player that I don’t think has yet to reach his full potential,” Cash said. “But from a catching standpoint, he’s as athletic as anybody. We gotta try and keep him on the field a little bit more consistently, and with the bat, he’s got such a simple swing that should play.”

Perez, 27, has another advantage in being on the 40-man roster, which is not the case for Herrmann or Smith, who are both non-roster invitees. If Smith or Herrmann won the job, the Rays would have to clear a roster spot in order to add them.

But on the other hand, Smith and Herrmann have more big league experience, which could also play a role. Smith, 31, spent the 2019 season with the Angels and also played three seasons with the White Sox. Last season, Smith hit five homers with the Halos in 191 at-bats. Smith, who is the only one of the three options who hits from the right side, also finished with an average exit velocity of 89.4 mph and a .294 expected batting average, both career highs.

Herrmann, 32, has played in parts of eight seasons with the Twins, D-backs, Mariners and A’s, giving him the most experience. But perhaps his biggest attribute is that he also has experience playing corner outfield, giving him added versatility.

At the end of the day, however, the Rays will have to make a decision on who they believe the best catcher is. It’s also worth noting that with the stoppage, both Smith and Herrmann have more time to watch film, communicate and learn the pitching staff, which could work in their favor.

“I’m here to have fun and I’m going to be here to support each and every one of my teammates,” Herrmann said. “I wish nothing but the best for everybody and I want everyone to stay healthy, because that’s what this is all about.”

What about the bullpen?
The Rays made it a point to keep most of the same faces from a bullpen that led the Majors with a 3.66 ERA last season. The only departure was Emilio Pagán, who led the team with 20 saves but was traded to the Padres just two days before the beginning of camp. With Pagán’s departure, the Rays have a spot for another reliever to emerge as a quality option.

Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake, Colin Poche and José Alvarado are locks to make the roster, but then it gets interesting. Andrew Kittredge appears to be a likely option, which would give the team seven relievers and 12 total pitchers. With rosters expanding to 26 players, the Rays will likely head into the season with 13 pitchers.

But the question is: What type of reliever will they want?

The decision could come down to whether the Rays want another one-inning back-end-type pitcher, or a pitcher they could pair with Kittredge to give them more length. If the decision is to go with a more traditional reliever, the choice could be Peter Fairbanks, who flashes a 98-100 mph fastball with a good breaking ball. If the choice is a long reliever, then Jalen Beeks or Trevor Richards would be the likely options.

During the four-plus weeks of spring, Fairbanks didn’t allow a run in five innings of work, while also striking out 10 batters. Beeks allowed two runs over 9 1/3 innings of work, while Richards struggled, allowing six earned runs on 12 hits in 7 2/3 innings.