'I'm close': Rays prospect White eyeing next level

February 25th, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- Last year, Rays relief prospect Colby White was ticketed for Low-A Charleston to start the 2021 season. But as early as Spring Training, the right-hander knew in the back of his mind that he could hold his own against hitters in Double-A.

White backed up his belief on the mound, flying through the lower levels of the Tampa Bay system and reaching Double-A Montgomery -- his third team in four months -- in mid-August. But he did more than just hold his own there: The hard-throwing reliever faced 48 batters, and only nine reached safely. At that point, mission accomplished, White allowed himself to think, “This was a good year.”

Then, he got called up again.

In just one season, his first full year in the Minors, White pitched for all four of the Rays’ full-season affiliates, dominated at every level and put himself on the doorstep of the Majors by reaching Triple-A Durham. Overall, the 23-year-old put together a 1.44 ERA, a 0.66 WHIP and 11 saves while striking out 45 percent of the batters he faced in 62 1/3 innings.

The Rays named White their Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year last September, and fans voted him as the Minors’ top reliever for the 2021 MiLBY Awards in November. White’s 104 strikeouts ranked seventh in the entire Tampa Bay system -- behind six starters -- and he only walked 15 hitters in 43 appearances. Opponents batted .124 against him on the year, lower than anyone else in the Minors who pitched at least 60 innings.

Throughout the offseason, White found himself wishing he could fast-forward to this moment, with Spring Training about to begin for Rays prospects next week in Minor League camp. White has all the makings of a high-leverage reliever, a role he’ll likely take on sooner than later, but there’s still a level he hasn’t reached yet.

“I'm wanting to go and try to earn a spot to see what happens. That's all I've been thinking about every day when I go to work is like, you know, 'I'm close. I'm close,’” White said in a phone interview last month. “The biggest thing is I want to get there, and I don't want it to be a struggle, and then you get sent back down. … I want to be able to do my part and be able to have success there. That's what I've kind of been thinking about every day.”

White has been thinking about it a lot longer, really. He was a starter in high school, but his coaches at Pearl River Community College quickly recognized that his big-time fastball and all-out intensity made him a better fit in the bullpen. The raw competition late in games, which he compares to a “fist fight” between himself and the hitter, fueled him.

White put together a strong junior season in Mississippi State’s bullpen then landed with the Rays in the sixth round of the 2019 Draft. He had a solid professional debut in short-season ball -- and then the waiting began. When the 2020 Minor League season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, White went to work alone five days a week near his home in Foxworth, Miss.

He focused on strengthening his lower body, which powers the 6-foot righty’s high-octane fastball, and cleaning up his mechanics. He kept in touch with the Rays’ pitching coaches and coordinators, who walked him through the development of his slider. He threw each morning at a square target, a 17-inch by 17-inch “command trainer” from Oates Specialties, tossing slider after slider until it started to feel right.

“Stayed very simple, I guess,” White said. “But I feel like if you rep something enough, you'll see the benefits of it.”

He did, almost immediately.

Last season, White’s fastball sat in the 95-98 mph range with good spin and flummoxed hitters at the top of the strike zone. In Low-A, throwing anything but fastballs felt like doing hitters a favor; they could at least put his slider in play, but nobody could touch his heater. He earned his first promotion to High-A Bowling Green on June 10. He gave up his first earned run of the season on June 22.

High-A hitters started selling out to hit White’s fastball, and he gave up three homers in his first six outings. Pitching coach Jim Paduch and the rest of the Bowling Green staff supplied him with useful information about his slider, and White began using his breaking ball in fastball counts to keep batters off-balance. Seeking another weapon to neutralize left-handed hitters, he also broke out a splitter in High-A. He allowed two hits, four walks and one run while striking out 22 over his final nine outings, then earned another promotion to Montgomery on Aug. 10.

All this movement created some logistical challenges for White. For one, he had to find a place to stay every time he was called up. The Rays eased some of those concerns by putting him in a hotel for the first week at each level, giving him time to meet a new group of teammates. Typically, White would assume a spot in the apartment left vacant by whichever player’s promotion preceded his callup -- for as long as he stayed in one place, anyway.

“I was only in Double-A for like three weeks. Seemed like I had just unpacked,” White said, laughing. “Boom, there we go again.”

Not that he’s complaining. On Sept. 9, White was promoted to Durham for the final stop of his Minor League tour. He continued to pitch well, allowing two runs with 14 strikeouts and two saves in nine appearances. A season that started in the low Minors ended a call away from the Majors.

“It was like, 'Man, this is kinda crazy. I've moved to every level in a full season,’” White said. “When I got there, I just realized it's the same game. I feel like as long as I'm able to keep that mentality, then I won't be overwhelmed. Sometimes the crowds get bigger and the lights get brighter … but just trying to kind of realize it's just a game, I think, is a big thing.”

At some point this year, there will be another call for White -- the one he spent all winter thinking about.