PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Last year, Yoshi Tsutsugo’s first Spring Training with the Rays was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He went home to Japan while the season was shut down, came back for an unusual ramp-up to the season and played his first, shortened campaign in a foreign country with no fans in the stands and a bunch of health and safety protocols in place.
You’ll often hear baseball players -- including Tsutsugo -- stress the importance of only focusing on the things they can control. That was easier said than done considering how much important stuff was out of the Japanese slugger’s control during his first season in the Majors.
“That was really unfair to Yoshi, coming over from Japan, being a star and then coming and seeing what was taking place throughout Major League Baseball with no fans, learning a new team. There's just so much on his plate,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “We're all very confident that he can really impact us with the bat, and his versatility throughout spring is going to help.”
Amid all that change, Tsutsugo hit just .197 with a .708 OPS in 185 plate appearances in the regular season, then he played sparingly during the postseason. But with more comfort in his new environment, (hopefully) a more normal year ahead and what Tsutsugo described as a “fresh mind” heading into this season, the Rays believe they’ll see him bounce back to being the player they expected when he signed his two-year, $12 million contract.
“Still as much a believer in the talent as we were when we signed him over a year ago,” general manager Erik Neander said last week. “I mean, I can’t imagine all that he had to go through -- all these challenges above and beyond what are the typical challenges. So we're very optimistic that, him coming back here and having those experiences underneath him, we're going to see a lot more production from him.”
Neander cited a few recent examples of hitters who struggled during their first season with Tampa Bay before dramatically improving the following year, like Logan Forsythe and Logan Morrison. Manager Kevin Cash said he believes Tsutsugo, 29, has worked hard to establish himself as “a big part of our team” in his second season.
“Last year, there was a lot of stuff that was out of our control,” Tsutsugo said Thursday through interpreter Brian Tobin. “So I just really tried to focus on what we could control and do my best on that part for the team.”
Cash said Tsutsugo will see time in the outfield and at third base, as he did last year, and Tampa Bay will try him out at first base during Spring Training as well.
Tsutsugo said he’s much more comfortable this spring, having more familiarity with the Rays’ teammates and staff than he did last year. He started working out in December, going back and forth from the field and his home in Japan. He said his weight hasn’t changed in either direction, but he feels more fit entering this year.
“I just want to really focus on what I’ve got this year and focus on what I can control and what I can do for the team,” Tsutsugo said.
Around the horn
• Thursday’s workout included another round of live batting practice, with the following pitchers facing their teammates: David Hess, Brian Moran, Joey Krehbiel, Louis Head, Ryan Sherriff, Stetson Allie, Trevor Richards, Chris Mazza and Dietrich Enns.
• Allie, a 29-year-old non-roster right-hander who’s moved from the mound to the field and back again, drew a crowd while facing hitters on Thursday morning and stood out, not only to Cash but also to one of his former Minor League teammates with the Pirates.
“That is some impressive stuff he's featuring,” Cash said. “When you’ve got Tyler Glasnow sitting behind there with his eyes bugged out saying, ‘Wow,’ you're doing something. You're not going to find many guys that he's overly impressed with because his stuff is so good.
“It's probably going to be a pretty simple message: We're not going to mess too much with your stuff. We're just going to do everything we can to get you to get it over the plate as much as possible.”
• Moran, a 32-year-old reliever, also caught Cash’s eye with a funky lower-slot delivery that induced several whiffs during his live BP session. The non-roster lefty faced the Rays twice last season while he was with the Blue Jays before moving on to the Marlins.
“He's not the overpowering guy. There's definitely a role and a place for him on a pitching staff,” Cash said. “Anytime you can create that type of deception and funkiness to the delivery, sometimes that 87 [mph] turns into 97. ... He’s probably a guy that you focus on to lump up against facing left-handed hitters, and I think that's how he'll be viewed here throughout camp.”
• Cash noted that Krehbiel, a right-handed reliever in camp on a Minor League deal, looked “pretty nasty” while throwing live BP. Krehbiel, a Seminole, Fla., native and former Seminole High teammate of Brett Phillips, said he was struck two days ago by how special it was for him to put on a Rays uniform.
“It’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve got to step back,’” Krehbiel said. “I've been playing for a while, but it’s a little bit different of a feeling.”
• Early Thursday afternoon, stadium workers made a pair of important additions to Charlotte Sports Park: They affixed the Rays’ 2020 American League East and AL championship banners to the building beyond the right-field fence and boardwalk.