Odorizzi, Waguespack pushing for open rotation spot

March 15th, 2024

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The competition for the final spot in the Rays’ Opening Day rotation just got a little bit more interesting.

On Friday morning, the Rays signed veteran right-hander to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training, bringing back a familiar face with plenty of experience and a desire to jump right into the rotation.

A few hours later, they added right-hander -- who had been in camp on a non-roster deal -- to their 40-man roster and placed rehabbing lefty Jeffrey Springs on the 60-day injured list to make room. That doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything, but the action backs up all Tampa Bay’s words of praise for what the journeyman pitcher has done so far this spring.

“Hopefully it just gives him a little peace of mind. He knows we're going to go down to the wire with some decisions, and he's right in the thick of it,” manager Kevin Cash said.

The Rays will continue to evaluate versatile relievers Chris Devenski and Tyler Alexander, who are being built up to handle starting/bulk-inning roles if necessary, along with others like non-roster righty Naoyuki Uwasawa. The Japanese righty had his best start of the spring in the Rays’ 7-2 win over the Orioles on Friday at Charlotte Sports Park, saying he felt more like himself as he allowed just one run while striking out three in four innings.

But Odorizzi and Waguespack now seem like the leading candidates to fill the rotation opening created by Taj Bradley’s right pectoral strain, which could sideline the young right-hander through April.

A source confirmed that Odorizzi’s deal will pay him $1.5 million in the Majors with $500,000 bonuses for innings pitched at 25, 50, 75, 100 and 150, as first reported by MLB Network insider Joel Sherman; the contract also includes a Minor League assignment salary of $216,000.

Odorizzi said he turned down other Minor League offers, holding out hope for a guaranteed deal, but his comfort, familiarity and opportunity here set the Rays apart. He said he pitched for 18 teams this offseason, and the Rays were present at each of his tryouts.

Odorizzi pitched for the Rays from 2013-17 before bouncing from the Twins to the Astros to the Braves to the Rangers. But he did not pitch for Texas last season after undergoing right shoulder surgery. The 33-year-old said he was fully recovered by September, started working on the mound in December and has thrown up to 80 pitches in his offseason bullpen sessions.

“He's a veteran guy. He knows what he's doing. He knows how to get ready,” Cash said. “We’re probably putting more judgment into him than most guys just because we haven't seen him all camp.”

Also, Odorizzi hasn’t faced hitters in a meaningful game since October 2022, when he pitched in Game 3 of the National League Division Series. He’ll pitch in a back-field setting Sunday before likely making two Spring Training game appearances, so he’ll have to quickly prove he’s ready for the intensity of regular-season competition before the Rays slot him into their rotation.

“I think it's basically, ‘Get ready,’ and if we're ready, then we're ready. If not, then we're not. Simple as that,” Odorizzi said. “Maybe that's a later conversation, whatever it might be. The focus now is just see [how it goes] Sunday, then five days from then, five days from then, and we go from there.”

If Odorizzi is ready come Opening Day, Waguespack could slide into the bullpen or be optioned to Triple-A Durham. If Odorizzi needs more time, Waguespack might earn the last spot in the rotation.

Waguespack, 30, hasn’t pitched in the Majors since putting up an 8.15 ERA over 11 appearances for the Blue Jays in 2020. He spent 2021 with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons then pitched for the Orix Buffaloes in Japan the last two years, following up an excellent ’22 campaign with a shakier performance last season.

But Waguespack has stood out this spring, and he did again Friday as he worked 3 2/3 hitless innings on 41 pitches. Now, he has the additional security of a 40-man roster spot.

“I think I can help this team and think my stuff plays in the big leagues,” Waguespack said. “Whether I start in Durham or the big leagues, it doesn't really matter to me. I'm ready to play for this team and this organization.”

Waguespack's velocity has ticked up into the mid-90s after spending the offseason at the Tread Athletics facility, and he complements that with a hard slider, curveball and splitter. Cash praised Waguespack for being “obviously a bright guy” who has capably acted on suggestions from pitching coach Kyle Snyder and improved throughout the spring.

“I think it illustrates what Spring Training can be for certain guys. From his first bullpen to where his overall arsenal buildout is right now, [he] increased the velocity and [is] holding that velocity,” Snyder said. “Could really be impactful for us as a starter. He's definitely built up the arsenal to be able to see the lineup at least two times, if not a third.”

Up next

The Rays’ present and future will be on display Saturday at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. First, the Rays and Twins will play a Grapefruit League game at 1:05 p.m. ET, with Ryan Pepiot starting for Tampa Bay.

Then, it’s time for Spring Breakout. A team of the Rays’ top prospects, including infielders Junior Caminero and Carson Williams, will take the field for a seven-inning exhibition against a squad of Twins prospects shortly after the big league game ends.