The Rays made two trades and agreed to sign a free-agent reliever on Wednesday morning, shuffling their bullpen options and parting with a well-regarded prospect as pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training in Port Charlotte, Fla.
To begin their flurry of moves, the Rays traded catching prospect Ronaldo Hernández and Minor League infielder Nick Sogard to the Red Sox for left-hander Jeffrey Springs, right-hander Chris Mazza and cash considerations. To make room on the 40-man roster for the optionable Springs and Mazza, Tampa Bay moved left-hander Jalen Beeks (recovering from Tommy John surgery) to the 60-day injured list.
Additionally, the Rays sent right-handed reliever John Curtiss to the Marlins for first-base prospect Evan Edwards. They also officially re-signed right-hander Oliver Drake on Wednesday night, bringing back the reliever for $775,000 with incentives that could increase his salary to $1.1 million this year. Drake is not expected back until the middle of the season, general manager Erik Neander said.
The Red Sox recently designated Springs, 28, and Mazza, 31, for assignment. Springs struck out 28 batters and walked only seven in 20 1/3 innings for Boston last season, but he posted a 7.08 ERA over 16 appearances. He was hit hard when opponents made contact, as his 12.7 percent barrel rate indicates, but he also posted a 95th percentile whiff rate (37.6 percent) last season by making opponents swing and miss with his sinker and changeup. He owns a 5.42 ERA in 59 games over three seasons in the Majors. He’s best suited for a short-relief role, although Neander said he could be stretched out to pitch multiple innings.
Mazza put together a 4.80 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 15 walks in 30 innings for the Red Sox last season. He pitched in nine games (six starts), so he'll compete for a bulk-innings/long-relief type role with the Rays. He has a five-pitch arsenal -- a cutter, slider, sinker, four-seam fastball and changeup -- and dramatically cut back his sinker usage last season after it was his primary pitch with the Mets in 2019.
“We have more optimism than their 2020 ERAs would suggest,” Neander said of Springs and Mazza. “The track records underneath those guys is not extensive by any means, obviously, but forward-looking at both of them, we're optimistic that they're better than they’ve been and they’re players that are going to help us.”
Hernández was the Rays' No. 14 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. The 23-year-old catcher, who owned a spot on Tampa Bay's 40-man roster, had a strong season at the plate with Class A Bowling Green in 2018, but he took a step back as he moved up a level in '19. He is known for his strong arm, though he still has room to grow as a receiver behind the plate.
Hernández was part of the Rays' 60-man player pool last season, having spent the summer at the alternate training site and on the taxi squad for several road trips before joining the club's 40-man postseason player pool. Presumably, Tampa Bay felt comfortable parting with a quality catching prospect given the presence of Mike Zunino and Francisco Mejía in the Majors, the depth provided by non-roster catchers like Kevan Smith and the recent additions of catching prospects Blake Hunt and Heriberto Hernandez.
“He’s a good young talent, and we wish him nothing but the best, certainly. He’s gone about his business with us the right way and is going to continue to develop into being a Major League player,” Neander said. “The depth that we have acquired certainly helps. But this is as much, it’s safe to say, the two pitchers we have coming back, that we liked them more than most.”
Sogard, 23, was the Rays' 12th-round Draft pick in 2019. He hit .290 with 20 stolen bases in 63 games during his professional debut for Class A Short-Season Hudson Valley in 2019.
The decision to trade Curtiss comes as somewhat of a surprise, as the 27-year-old righty unexpectedly played a big part out of the bullpen last season, but the bullpen depth they added on Wednesday made the move more feasible.
Curtiss posted a 1.80 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP with 25 strikeouts in 25 innings over 17 outings during the regular season, and after a rocky appearance in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, he allowed only two runs in 9 1/3 innings over eight appearances the rest of the postseason. He was Tampa Bay's winning pitcher in the club's dramatic World Series Game 4 victory.
“I don't think we're playing as deep in the postseason without his contributions last year,” Neander said.
Edwards, the Marlins' fourth-round selection in the 2019 Draft, slashed .281/.357/.442 over 73 games in Class A in 2019. The 23-year-old left-handed hitter only played first base during his professional debut.
“Edwards is a prospect that we have a high opinion of and someone that fits nicely in our system,” Neander said. “It’s just that balancing act, you know, trying to take inventory of our group at the Major League level, what we have and how all that fits together, and then, when there's an opportunity to add a player that can help us down the line, that we’re opportunistic and make those types of transactions as well.”
After pitching for five teams in 2018, Drake pitched well for the Rays in '19, recording a 3.21 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 56 innings over 50 games. He missed time last season due to right biceps tendinitis, was eventually removed from the club's ALDS roster due to a right flexor tendon strain and was designated for assignment, making him a free agent. If his recovery goes well, he’ll essentially serve as a midseason addition to their relief corps.
“[He is] somebody that we know what he's capable of when he's been right, when he's been healthy. That was not last year. That was a lot more like 2019,” Neander said. “Someone that I think we’ll try to do right by him and try to take care of him , but in a position to really help us later in the year.”