With the Rays’ pitching staff beset by injuries late last August, left-hander Josh Fleming stepped in and stepped up with seven strong outings down the stretch. The rookie made five solid starts and two strong appearances as a bulk-innings pitcher and eventually rejoined Tampa Bay’s roster in the American League Championship Series and World Series.
After ascending from the alternate training site to the Fall Classic last year, Fleming has a simple goal entering this season.
“I want to make that starting rotation right out of the gate and roll with it from there,” Fleming said on MLB Network while taking part in the 30th annual Rookie Program held by MLB and the MLB Players Association. “I’m just going to go into Spring Training and compete my butt off. I want to force them to put me in that rotation.”
There should be a spot available for Fleming and a handful of other young pitchers. With Charlie Morton in Atlanta and Blake Snell in San Diego, the Rays have three starters locked into their rotation: Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough and Michael Wacha. It seems likely the Rays will acquire at least one more starter before Opening Day, whether it’s a free agent or a trade target, but that would still leave one open spot and plenty more opportunities for multi-inning pitchers throughout the year -- opportunities like the one Fleming capitalized on last summer.
“It’s awesome,” Fleming said. “Obviously, we were able to go pretty far last year, going to the World Series and everything, just a couple games short. It’s incredible how they work with young guys and the guys that they have currently. It always seems like they find guys that aren’t big-name guys and they turn them into stars and everything.
“I’m not there yet, but, hopefully, one day I can get there.”
After trading Snell, general manager Erik Neander acknowledged that “it’s fair to say that 2021 will be some sort of a transition year” for the pitching staff. Among the Rays’ young pitchers who could step into a bigger role this year are Fleming, Shane McClanahan, Brent Honeywell Jr., Joe Ryan, Brendan McKay and Luis Patiño, who was recently ranked by MLB Pipeline as the No. 5 right-handed pitching prospect in baseball.
“We also have a lot of confidence in the young pitching that we have that hasn’t yet established themselves,” Neander said after the Snell trade, starting a list of pitchers with Glasnow and Yarbrough. “You look at what Fleming did last year and believe that’s something he can build upon. Patiño, McClanahan, Honeywell, Joe Ryan -- we’ve got a pretty good group that’s coming here.”
Fleming, 24, has a place in that group despite making only four appearances above Double-A before last season. After joining the Rays on Aug. 23, the lefty went 5-0 with a 2.78 ERA and 1.08 WHIP and a 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 1/3 innings. Leaning on a fastball that averaged 90.5 mph during the regular season and moved more than just about any sinker in the Majors, he held hitters to a .230 average, .670 OPS and an average exit velocity of just 86 mph.
Fleming’s said he hasn’t been told much about what his role will be this year, where he’ll pitch or what kind of cap might be placed on his workload after a shortened season. But he has a good idea of what he needs to do to be successful enough to lock down the rotation spot he’s eyeing.
“I think my big strength is against lefties with that sinker running in on them, so I know that’s going to be my strong suit,” Fleming said. “Wherever they have me, whether I’m in the starting rotation or they have me in the ’pen like a long-relief guy, whatever it is, I’m going to attack it.”
The mental side of the game was a frequent topic of conversation during the Rookie Program, where Fleming was joined virtually last week by Rays prospects Honeywell, McClanahan, Josh Lowe, Kevin Padlo, Drew Strotman and Taylor Walls. Minding their mental health was especially important for players last season, as they compounded the standard stress of performing in the big leagues with the unprecedented challenges they faced completing an abbreviated season and expanded postseason amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Just the travel and everything, quarantining yourself in your room for pretty much every day that you’re not at the field, it can get to you,” Fleming said. “But you’ve got to stay mentally strong, and you’ll get through it.
“When it comes to the games, everyone’s going to have a bad day. Nothing’s going to be easy. It’s the big leagues. Nothing’s ever easy in the big leagues.”