ST. PETERSBURG -- This has already been an eventful season for Shane Baz. The 22-year-old right-hander pitched in big league Spring Training, quickly earned a promotion from Double-A to Triple-A, took part in the All-Star Futures Game and represented his country with Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics.
The top prospect’s next stop? Tropicana Field.
Baz, the Rays’ No. 1 prospect, will make his highly anticipated Major League debut Monday night against the Blue Jays. The team that has already debuted prospects Wander Franco, Vidal Bruján, Josh Lowe, Taylor Walls and Brent Honeywell Jr. this season will now get a look at Baz, whom MLB Pipeline ranks No. 20 overall.
“I was pinching myself this morning when I woke up. It's been a blessing,” Baz said Sunday morning. “This was my biggest goal this year. It's been awesome to just get to live my dream out and get a crack at this. It's been a great year.”
Baz last pitched for Triple-A Durham on Sept. 11, striking out 10 batters while allowing only one run on three hits and one walk over six innings. In five Triple-A starts since returning from the Tokyo Olympics, he has put together a 1.57 ERA with 31 strikeouts and three walks in 23 innings. He was scratched from his most recent scheduled start for Durham due to back spasms -- the result of what he called “definitely the worst sneeze ever” -- which also kept him from debuting Friday night when the Rays were considering him as an option to pitch against the Tigers.
But when Durham manager Brady Williams called a team meeting Saturday, he announced that Baz was indeed headed to the big leagues to start on Monday. Baz said the Triple-A clubhouse erupted in celebration, then he FaceTimed his parents, Raj and Tammy -- who will be at Tropicana Field on Monday night -- to share what he called a “very emotional phone call.”
“Very excited,” said Baz, who spent Sunday on the Rays’ taxi squad. “I've been throwing the ball since I was 5 years old, so it's kind of what I feel like I was meant to do.”
The Rays will likely wait and see how Baz fares in his debut Monday before deciding what comes next, but manager Kevin Cash said they will probably need more than one look at him to make that call. So this may be the beginning of a postseason audition for Baz, and it wouldn’t be out of character for Tampa Bay to bring up a big-but-inexperienced arm at this point of the season.
After all, it was around this time in 2008 -- Sept. 14, to be exact -- that a 23-year-old David Price joined the Rays’ pitching staff before their run to the World Series. Just last year, Tampa Bay had Shane McClanahan make his big league debut as a reliever in the playoffs.
Could the hard-throwing Baz follow a similar path? Time will tell. The American League East-leading Rays have a little more time to sort out their postseason pitching options, but Baz has certainly done enough to prove himself in the upper Minors this season.
“Excited to see what tomorrow brings. I'm sure he's excited,” Cash said Sunday. “Seeing him in Spring Training, he seems like a pretty even-keeled personality, so I'm guessing he'll handle this very well, kind of like he's done everything else certainly this year.”
Baz was the “player to be named later” in the Rays’ lopsided trade with the Pirates on July 31, 2018, when Tampa Bay received Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows along with Baz in return for Chris Archer. The 12th overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, Baz always showed elite stuff in the Minors. He pitched well in his first full season in the Rays' organization in 2019, posting a 2.99 ERA in 17 starts in Class A ball, yet control remained an issue as he walked 4.1 batters per nine innings.
But any concerns about Baz disappeared this season.
Breaking camp with Double-A Montgomery, Baz recorded a 2.48 ERA with 49 strikeouts and only two walks in 32 2/3 innings over seven starts. He didn’t skip a beat with Triple-A Durham, putting together a 1.76 ERA with 64 strikeouts and 11 walks in 46 innings over 10 starts.
“I think the strikeout-to-walk ratio is what's stood out this year. In the past, it's probably just been the power,” Cash said. “But him probably fine-tuning all those pitches, complementing each other -- very impressive numbers, what he's done between Double-A and Triple-A.”
Baz said it was his time in the Olympics that prepared him most for this stage. Even with no fans in the stands, he was more nervous to pitch for the silver medal-winning Team USA than he felt arriving at The Trop on Sunday.
While in Tokyo, Baz shared a room with Rays reliever David Robertson, who called the top prospect “the real deal” after seeing him pitch more in Triple-A this season.
“With the type of stuff that he has, when you land it in the zone as often as he has this year, he becomes really tough to hit against,” Rays director of Minor League operations Jeff McLerran said last month. “Those steps forward in those areas have really allowed for him to make the leaps that he has.”
Now comes the toughest leap of all -- from Triple-A to The Show, facing one of the Majors’ hottest lineups and a Toronto team vying for a spot in the postseason.
“It's been pretty crazy, so [I'm] just trying to keep my routine and keep every day the same kind of thing,” Baz said. “It's been a little bit of a whirlwind, but I couldn't be more comfortable here.”