Tsutsugo didn’t emerge last season as the left-handed slugger the Rays expected when they signed him in December 2019 to a two-year, $12 million contract, batting just .197 with a .708 OPS in a pandemic-shortened season. They reinforced their belief in him over the offseason, found a spot for him at first base in Spring Training and displayed their confidence by making him their Opening Day leadoff hitter, but his struggles continued.
Tsutsugo, 29, was hitting just .167 with a .462 OPS, no home runs and 27 strikeouts in 87 plate appearances when Tampa Bay removed him from the roster before Tuesday’s game against the Yankees at Tropicana Field. He had only started two of the Rays’ previous seven games, and playing time is about to become scarcer with the impending return of first baseman Ji-Man Choi.
“Certainly not the outcome that we had in mind, that Yoshi had in mind, but felt that this was the decision that at this point was best for our team as we look forward here,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “He was professional. He was gracious. We appreciate him for all the effort that he's put in to this point.”
If Tsutsugo is not acquired by another team over the next week, he can become a free agent and sign elsewhere or, if there’s no other opportunity, choose to rejoin the Rays as part of their Triple-A Durham roster. Neander said Tampa Bay would “love to have him in Durham,” believing that regular playing time there could provide a path back to the big leagues for Tsutsugo.
“I don't want to close the book on him, but I do think that the opportunity wasn't going to be there for him to turn himself around right now. I think it requires some regular playing time that wasn't going to be there,” Neander said. “I can't necessarily pinpoint one particular thing, but I do believe that there is a better version of Yoshi that is in there right now. But it's going to require a mental reset of sorts and regular work, which just wasn't going to be there at the moment.”
After starring for the Yokohama Bay Stars in Japan, Tsutsugo struggled to adjust to Major League pitching -- especially high-velocity fastballs -- last year. But he still showed some encouraging signs at the plate, like his pitch selection and a high walk rate, while playing left field and third base. That led the Rays to believe he could turn it around in a more normal environment this season, but Tsutsugo never got on track and his swing-and-miss rate spiked this season.
“You can't fault the guy for how hard he worked and the way he came in every day preparing, and [he] just kept as positive of an attitude as any guy we've been around,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Over the last couple weeks, at-bats, playing time has been a little tougher to come by. I think that we felt that our roster could probably be better served with an opportunity for somebody else.”
The Rays have options at first base. The left-handed-hitting Choi could be activated from his rehab assignment as soon as Wednesday, just in time to face Gerrit Cole. (That’s not a favorable matchup for most, but Choi is 8-for-12 with three homers in the regular season, plus another one in last year’s American League Division Series, against the Yankees’ ace.) Neander said Choi’s return “certainly was a contributing factor” to the lack of playing time projected for Tsutsugo moving forward.
The Rays can also use right-handed-hitting corner infielder Yandy Díaz and prospect Kevin Padlo, who was recalled on Tuesday after hitting four homers and driving in seven runs in his first six games for Triple-A Durham, at first base.
• Kevin Kiermaier’s time on the 10-day injured list will “hopefully” be close to the minimum stint, Neander said. Testing revealed no broken bones or ligament damage in his sprained left wrist, but based on previous injuries to Kiermaier’s left hand, Neander noted that his recovery is “very day to day, and [we] just kind of have to wait to see how it responds to rest and to downtime.”
Cash said Kiermaier felt much better on Monday, which he took to be another encouraging sign considering how much soreness and pain the veteran outfielder was experiencing on Sunday.
• Michael Wacha (right hamstring tightness) threw a bullpen session and took part in fielding drills on Tuesday, Cash said, and the reports were that Wacha “felt significantly better.” Wacha is eligible to come off the 10-day IL on Thursday, and Cash noted that the Rays can’t set pitching plans for this week until they see how Wacha bounces back on Wednesday, so perhaps Wacha’s return is imminent.
Around the horn
• The Rays reinstated left-hander Ryan Sherriff from the restricted list on Tuesday and optioned him to Triple-A Durham, thus filling the 40-man roster spot left open by Tsutsugo. After making the Rays’ Opening Day roster, Sherriff took time away from the team last month for personal reasons and told Sports Illustrated he was dealing with mental health issues.
• The Rays essentially swapped left-handers Josh Fleming and Ryan Yarbrough in their rotation order, moving up Fleming to pitch Tuesday behind Luis Patiño and pushing back Yarbrough to pitch Wednesday. Cash said the switch will “freshen up Yarbs a little bit” and keep Fleming, who’s been efficient in his outings, on a five-day routine. Yarbrough spent one day on the COVID-related IL last week due to side effects from his vaccination but said he’s feeling good heading into Wednesday’s game.