J. Lowe (oblique strain) to miss Opening Day

March 17th, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- While working his way back from a bout with left hip inflammation, Rays right fielder injured his right oblique, sustaining a Grade 1 strain that will keep him off Tampa Bay’s Opening Day roster.

Lowe was shut down on Feb. 29 due to his hip issue, which bothered him in the offseason and flared up again after Spring Training games began. He resumed baseball activities last week and hoped to play against the Pirates on Sunday afternoon at LECOM Park. But Lowe tweaked his oblique on Friday, manager Kevin Cash said, and had an MRI on Saturday that revealed a “very mild, minor” strain.

Lowe will be shut down from baseball activities for another five to seven days. It seems likely he will miss at least the first 10 days of the regular season, although his recovery timeline will become clearer after further evaluation. The 26-year-old outfielder played in two Grapefruit League games, recording only four plate appearances, before being sidelined by the hip injury.

The Rays are optimistic that they caught Lowe’s injury early enough to minimize the amount of time he’ll miss, but being without Lowe at the start of the season is nonetheless a tough blow for a club that already lost starter Taj Bradley (right pectoral strain) for, likely, all of April.

Lowe is coming off an excellent year. He hit .292/.335/.500 with 20 home runs, 33 doubles, 32 stolen bases and 83 RBIs in 135 games, and his 3.7 WAR ranked fourth on the Rays’ 99-win team. He entered Spring Training with higher expectations, hoping to build on what he did during his first full season in the Majors.

Lowe is the second outfielder the Rays have lost to an injury this spring, as newcomer Jonny DeLuca sustained a right hand fracture after being hit by a pitch during the Rays’ series in the Dominican Republic a week ago.

Now, the Rays must once again change their plans for their Opening Day roster. Lowe’s injury should create a spot for Richie Palacios, who can play all three outfield spots and second base. Palacios, who has hit a team-high-tying three homers this spring, started in left field on Sunday and is slated to get a start in center on Monday.

“He's done a good job. He gives very competitive, good at-bats. He's driven the ball really, really well,” Cash said. “Continuing to work on the defense in the outfield, be the best outfielder he can be [and that] will help out his opportunities.”

Palacios said he wasn’t getting caught up in whether he’s making the Opening Day roster or where he’ll play if (or when) he does.

“I feel like I've put some good swings together, playing good defense. But we've still got spring games going, so it's not over,” Palacios said. “Just continuing to build every day with that, wherever that position is for me. I'm working at all the positions, and we'll see what happens with that.”

If everyone else stays healthy, here is how the Rays’ position player group could shake out due to Lowe’s injury:

Catcher: René Pinto, Alex Jackson

First base: Yandy Díaz

Second base: Brandon Lowe

Shortstop: José Caballero

Third base: Isaac Paredes

Infield/utility: Amed Rosario, Jonathan Aranda, Curtis Mead, Palacios

Outfield: Randy Arozarena, Jose Siri, Harold Ramírez (OF/DH)

In that scenario, the Rays could use the left-handed-hitting Palacios in right field against right-handed pitchers then swap in Rosario, who crushes left-handed pitching, as a platoon partner. Rosario could work as a second-base platoon partner for Brandon Lowe as well, but Mead could play a similar role.

“Rosie's going to find himself in the pretty consistent mix. He's so athletic, and I think every day, he's got a chance to get better and more comfortable in right field,” Cash said. “He's saying good things right now, that the comfort is there, so that's encouraging.”

Primarily a DH since joining the Rays, Ramírez has also made himself into more of an option in the outfield corners after dropping 15 pounds this winter to improve his athleticism.

“I feel very good. Now, I feel like an athlete,” Ramírez said. “I want to play more than the two years before. If this is the only way, I’m going to do it.”

One unsettled question as a result of Lowe’s injury: Who will be the backup center fielder behind Siri? DeLuca seemed like the leading candidate at the start of the spring, and Lowe gained plenty of experience there in the Minors. Palacios can play there, and Arozarena has patrolled center before. Rosario also played 18 games in center for Cleveland in 2021.

“I think it could be a candidate list of everybody on the roster,” Cash said. “Siri's going to play a lot. We need to kind of bubble wrap him.”