The Rays hold a comfortable lead over the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East but have sputtered a bit in September. Perhaps adding one of the best pitching prospects in baseball and one of the most effective arms from the 2021 Minor League season will provide a necessary jolt.
Tampa Bay is calling up No. 20 overall prospect Shane Baz to make his Major League debut Monday with a start against Toronto at Tropicana Field. Baz becomes the sixth current or 2021 preseason Top 100 prospect to play for the Rays this season alongside Wander Franco, Vidal Bruján, Shane McClanahan, Luis Patiño and Josh Lowe.
There’s little doubt that the 22-year-old right-hander earned this promotion to The Show. He posted a 2.06 ERA with 113 strikeouts and 13 walks in 78 2/3 innings between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham prior to the news of his callup. He was even better at the higher level with a 1.76 ERA with 64 K’s in 10 starts (46 innings) after joining the Bulls on June 15. Though it may look like Baz was limited in Minor League innings, that was in part due to his participation with Team USA at the Olympics in Japan, where he helped the national team capture a silver medal.
Among the 522 pitchers with at least 70 innings this season, Baz is tops with an 8.7 K/BB ratio and places second in WHIP (0.80), seventh in K rate (37.9 percent), seventh in ERA (2.06) and eighth in FIP (2.76).
The improvements in control have done the most to help Baz take things to a new level this summer. Originally taken by the Pirates with the 12th overall pick in 2017, the right-hander was included as a player-to-be-named-later in the Chris Archer deal a year later that also netted the Rays Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows. The Rays have spent the last three years working with Baz on cleaning up his delivery and improving his pitch control, and after the missed season last year, he truly took off by throwing more in the zone in the upper Minors in 2021. To wit, Baz’s walk rate dropped from 10.8 percent in 2019 to 4.4 this campaign.
Even when he was showing below-average control, Baz still had some of the best stuff among Minor League pitching prospects. His fastball can sit around 95-98 mph, and he will touch triple-digits at times when he really rears back. His mid-80s slider features a good hard bite, earning plus to plus-plus grades, and can be incredibly difficult to touch for right-handers. His changeup is much more of an average offering, but the pitch features enough fade to be a weapon against left-handers. Baz used to throw a curveball as well, but the Rays have had him rely on it less and less over the years, thus focusing on the best offerings in his arsenal.
It’s a mix that should play quickly in the Majors, even against a talented Blue Jays lineup on Monday. The Rays have been quiet as to how long Baz could stick at the top level, and how he performs against Toronto could play a major role in that decision. It’s possible he could head back to Durham for the Triple-A Final Stretch tournament that runs through the end of the Major League season. Even if that happens, Baz could return to St. Petersburg and play a role similar to Shane McClanahan in 2020, that of the Top 100 prospect who brings his elite velocity and impressive breaker to the Tampa Bay bullpen for a potential lengthy run through the postseason.