Baz pitching for USA 'once in a lifetime'

July 22nd, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- Last summer, Shane Baz and Joe Ryan lived together while working out at the Rays' alternate training site in Port Charlotte, Fla. In that environment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Baz said, they had “no choice but to get to know each other.”

They haven’t spent much time apart since then, living together from Spring Training until the start of the Minor League season then becoming roommates again when Baz, the Rays’ No. 5 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, was promoted to join Ryan as part of the Triple-A Durham rotation. Now, they’re going global -- albeit not together when the Olympics are over.

Ryan, who was the club’s No. 10 prospect, was dealt to the Twins on Thursday in a trade for designated hitter Nelson Cruz.

No longer Durham teammates when they return, Baz and Ryan traveled to Tokyo this week as two of the pitchers on Team USA, which will begin play in the Olympic Games against Israel on July 30. The opening ceremony is scheduled for Friday, and the right-handers both expected that to be a highlight of their shared experience.

“It's just like, constantly, we're together. And then now he’s here again, so it's good to have him,” Ryan said last Saturday on a Zoom call. “Being able to go with my teammate and my roommate with Baz, it's pretty a special opportunity."

Ryan, 25, pitched for Team USA during the Olympic qualifying round. Baz, 22, struck out six over three scoreless innings of relief while earning the win in an exhibition against the Collegiate National Team on Tuesday. They received the Rays’ blessing to step away from the Minor League season and represent their country on the international stage until they return as late as Aug. 9 -- ideally, with gold medals in hand.

“The chance to be an Olympian is probably once in a lifetime,” Baz said. “The biggest honor I can do on a baseball field, honestly, is putting on red, white and blue and trying to go win a gold medal for your country. So, it's really special.”

Here’s a look at what’s happening throughout the rest of the Rays’ top-ranked farm system.

Triple-A Durham (46-20, first place in the Triple-A East – Southeast Division)

• Center fielder Josh Lowe, the Rays’ No. 9 prospect, appears to be ready whenever the Rays need him. He’s hitting .283/.359/.548 with 13 homers and 14 steals in 59 games, and he’s worked in all three outfield spots this season.

• On June 17, the Rays made a low-profile move to acquire first baseman Mike Ford from the Yankees. The 29-year-old, lefty-hitting infielder is batting .284/.370/.642 with nine homers in 22 games for Durham. Infielder Esteban Quiroz is on the injured list with a fractured cheekbone, creating playing time for Ford and recently promoted 25-year-old super-utility man Miles Mastrobuoni.

• Another, less heralded outfielder enjoying a strong season for the Bulls: Nathan Lukes, a strong defender with a great arm who came back from the season off with a better approach and bat speed, allowing him to hit .323/.380/.512 with nearly as many walks (15) as strikeouts (21) in his first 48 games. Also worth noting what non-roster lefty Dietrich Enns is doing in Durham: The 30-year-old has a 2.50 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 65 strikeouts in 54 innings over 13 outings.

• Durham will have to fill a few weeks’ worth of Baz and Ryan’s innings, which the club intends to do by stretching out some of the multi-inning arms like Brent Honeywell Jr. (who made a three-inning start Wednesday) and Sean Poppen. The Rays also promoted right-hander Tommy Romero, a recent addition to the Rays’ Top 30 Prospects list. Romero, 24, put together a 1.88 ERA with 75 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 48 innings over 11 outings for Double-A Montgomery.

Double-A Montgomery (34-30, third place in the Double-A South – South Division)

• There aren’t many better stories in the system than outfielder Ruben Cardenas. The 23-year-old could always hit, and now his power is showing up. After crushing High-A pitching, he’s hitting .294/.306/.587 with nine homers in 26 games for Montgomery and leads the system with 19 homers overall.

• Similarly, 23-year-old infielder Jonathan Aranda seems to have benefitted from his time in the Mexican Pacific Winter League last year. He’d never hit for much power, but now he’s hitting .335/.415/.565 with nine homers and 15 doubles in 56 games between High-A and Double-A.

• Right-hander Peyton Battenfield, who’s knocking on the door of the Rays’ Top 30 list, hasn’t skipped a beat since being promoted to Double-A. The organizational strikeout leader with 88, Battenfield has put together a 2.03 ERA with a 7.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio in six outings for Montgomery.

• Right-hander Jayden Murray, a 23rd-round pick in 2019, made his Double-A debut Wednesday. The 24-year-old starter earned his promotion by posting a 1.72 ERA and 0.69 WHIP in 57 2/3 innings over 12 High-A starts. Another pitcher to watch is righty reliever Chris Muller, who has 12 strikeouts and six saves while allowing two runs in nine innings over eight outings since joining the Biscuits.

High-A Bowling Green (47-21, first place in the High-A East – South Division)

• First, look at what Bowling Green has done as a team, winning nine straight games and 12 of 13. The Hot Rods are tied with Charleston for the most wins in the Minors.

No. 6 prospect Greg Jones continues to look like the real deal. He homered on Wednesday, giving him at least one hit in 10 of his last 11 games. Overall this season, the 23-year-old Jones is hitting .284/.393/.544 with 12 homers and 20 steals in 44 games.

• Tanner Dodson, formerly a two-way prospect, is now focusing only on pitching. It’s working out well for the 24-year-old righty, too, with his stuff starting to play up. In 23 1/3 innings over his last 14 outings, he owns a 1.93 ERA with 29 strikeouts and only eight walks.

Low-A Charleston (47-19, first place in the Low-A East – South Division)

• Tied with Bowling Green for the best record in Minor League Baseball, the RiverDogs have a Minors-best 11 shutout victories entering play Thursday. You won’t see many performances as dominant as this one against Augusta on Saturday: a 22-0 victory in which they allowed only one hit and two walks.

• Without starters John Doxakis (promoted) and Cole Wilcox (injured), Taj Bradley (No. 19) and Seth Johnson (No. 13) have stepped up in Charleston’s rotation. Bradley has emerged as one of the most exciting pitching prospects in the system, utilizing a cutter/slider while maintaining his fastball velocity deeper into starts, with a 2.14 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings. Johnson, the 40th overall pick in 2019, has a 3.86 ERA with 55 strikeouts in 49 innings over 13 outings.

• Charleston’s roster is full of heralded prospects performing well. One lesser-known contributor is 21-year-old outfielder Diego Infante, who’s slashing .296/.400/.507 with 24 extra-base hits, 15 steals and 46 RBIs in 58 games. Infante was a scouts’ favorite as an amateur out of Venezuela, and he seems to be coming into his own this season.

Rookie-level FCL Rays (10-5, second place in the Florida Complex League – South Division)

• The pitcher to watch on the FCL club is still flame-throwing righty Sandy Gaston, the 19-year-old with a fastball that clocks in from 96-101 mph who’s drawn rave reviews from rival scouts.

• Also keep an eye on 20-year-old righties Victor Munoz (20 strikeouts, two walks in 13 2/3 innings) and Antonio Jimenez (17 strikeouts, five walks in 16 innings) on the FCL Rays’ pitching staff and 19-year-old infielders Alejandro Pie (Rays’ No. 18 prospect) and Willy Vasquez as they establish themselves.

Rookie-level Dominican Summer League Rays 1 (4-3) and Rays 2 (4-3)

• The Rays’ Dominican Summer League clubs just started their season last week. A fun quirk of the schedule: Every Saturday, Rays 1 and Rays 2 take the field to play each other. Among the prospects to watch on those rosters are 18-year-old outfielder Jhon Diaz (Rays’ No. 25 prospect), 17-year-old center fielder Jhonny Piron and 18-year-old outfielder Arison Jimenez.

• Shortstop Carlos Colmenarez, the club’s top 2020 international signee and No. 14 prospect, should join the DSL Rays in the coming weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured hamate bone in his right hand.