ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays used 61 players this season, including 38 pitchers. They utilize their depth as well as any club in the Majors, and the sheer number of pitchers they had available helped them survive the transition from last year’s 60-game season back to a 162-game campaign.
Now, as they prepare to begin the American League Division Series on Thursday against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field, they’ll have to pick their best 26-man roster.
Anything’s possible with the Rays, who surprisingly had left-hander Shane McClanahan make his Major League debut out of the bullpen last October. But they don’t seem to have many particularly convoluted roster competitions as this postseason begins.
“I really don’t think there’s going to be a lot of decisions,” manager Kevin Cash said Sunday. “We’re going to have our conversations, but I don’t anticipate anything out of the ordinary.”
The Rays’ position-player group has been mostly stable, aside from the occasional injury, since the acquisition of veteran designated hitter Nelson Cruz. Their postseason rotation began to come into focus in the final days of the season. Their bullpen is perhaps the biggest question mark.
“Every opponent is a little different, which could shape our decision a different way,” Cash said. “You want to be as prepared as possible, but we’ll be watching those games just as much as the fans are.”
Here’s a look at three things to monitor as the Rays put together their roster in the coming days.
They’ve already tipped their hand a bit in some cases by trying out righty Luis Patiño and lefty Josh Fleming in the bullpen. Those two are likely ticketed for relief roles, with Patiño firing high-octane fastballs for multiple innings and Fleming brought in either to get ground balls or handle left-handed hitters.
But what about starters Michael Wacha and Ryan Yarbrough? After ditching his cutter, Wacha mostly pitched well down the stretch. He had a 2.88 ERA with 36 strikeouts and seven walks in his last seven outings. He’s playoff-tested, and he can provide another length option if a starter gets knocked out early or if multiple innings are needed late in a game. Yarbrough has had an up-and-down season, but he has a knack for inducing weak contact, and he allowed only 11 hits, one walk and a .586 opponents’ OPS in 16 2/3 innings over his final three outings.
Those two provided valuable innings during the regular season, helping to keep the Rays’ younger arms fresh. Maybe one of them will get a start in the ALDS. Maybe they can lock down a role out of the bullpen. We’ll soon find out.
Righties J.P. Feyereisen has been asked to pitch in big spots and get out of jams, and slider specialist Matt Wisler seems like a safe bet as long as his recently injured right middle finger holds up. David Robertson, who pitched two innings in Houston last week, and JT Chargois, who has a 1.90 ERA in 25 outings with the Rays despite some recent walk issues, have also pitched in high-leverage roles this season.
Let’s assume they carry 13 pitchers, including three starters and all of the above relievers. That would leave one spot available on the staff. What are their options?
Perhaps Nick Anderson, their top high-leverage option last year, assuming he’s deemed to be in good shape after sitting out until mid-September then finishing the regular season on the 10-day IL due to a back injury. Dietrich Enns is another left-hander who can work in short stints or handle multiple innings. Right-hander Louis Head, who has excelled in an up-and-down season split between the Majors and Triple-A Durham, could help out at some point. Or perhaps that spot is best filled by one of the veteran starters, Wacha or Yarbrough.
This seems pretty easy, on the surface.
The toughest two omissions are slick-fielding infielder Taylor Walls, a potentially valuable defensive replacement at second base, shortstop or third, and right-handed bat Jordan Luplow, who was sent to Triple-A the last week of the season to get regular at-bats and more work at first base. It’s hard to see them jumping past any of the more established position players, but one -- most likely Luplow, as a matchup-oriented bat -- could claim a spot if the Rays opt to carry only 12 pitchers in the ALDS.
There are only three other position players on the Rays’ 40-man roster: versatile infielder Mike Brosseau, who hasn’t been able to match his previous production at the plate this season; outfielder Josh Lowe, who played two games in his brief debut last month; and speedy infielder/outfielder Vidal Bruján, who thrived in Durham but got into only 10 games in the big leagues.