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Rays free-agent targets: left-handed relief pitcher

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Mets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With the reported signing of Chris Archer, the Rays have solidified their pitching staff and will probably be making only small changes to that side of the roster from now until Spring Training. The 40-man roster is full, meaning that the Rays will need to either designate a player for assignment (remove him from the 40-man roster and potentially allow him to move on to another organization) or make another trade before they can officially add Archer to the team.

A couple days ago @RaysMetrics asked the fanbase how they thought the Rays would make room for Archer, and the plurality vote was that the Rays were going to DFA Ryan Sherriff.

The problem with this, though, is that right now the Rays have an Aaron Loup-sized hole coming off their 2020 World Series roster. They are short on sure-thing lefties. Here are the left-handed pitchers currently on the 40-man who could fill Loup’s shoes coming out of the bullpen:

  • Jalen Beeks (recovering from Tommy John surgery)
  • Colin Poche (recovering from Tommy John surgery)
  • Brendan McKay (recovering from shoulder surgery, will be stretched back out to start)
  • Cody Reed (will begin the season as an injury question mark after missing the end of 2020 with a pinky injury)
  • Josh Fleming (will compete for the fifth starter position and in any case will probably remain stretched out for now)
  • Shane McClanahan (also in the mix for a rotation spot, and while he could potentially end up as a short/long combination reliever similar to how the Rays have used Beeks, I’d expect him to start the season in Triple-A)
  • Ryan Sherriff

There are quality arms in that mix, but outside of Sherriff there’s not a lot of certainty about what they’ll be able to do at the beginning of 2021. Can the Rays really let go of their one sure thing, with no ability to add another major-league lefty?

Remember though that Loup himself was invited to camp last year on a minor league contract, although there was always a strong likelihood he’d break camp with the major league team. And once Spring Training begins, the Rays will be able to immediately move Beeks, Poche, and Yonny Chirinos to the 60-day Injured List, which will open up three more major league roster spots. So in effect, the Rays do have room to upgrade their left-handed reliever group, as long as they can convince players to sign initially on a minor league deal.

They can go looking for another Loup. I went looking, too, and categorized the available options into three subjective groups (Loups).

To help search I’ve thrown the Pitch Info data for the available left-handed free agents who pitched in 2020 into a visualization tool. Feel free to poke around if that brings you joy. Here’s how I rate the available pitchers.

Loup A

These are pitchers who, much like Aaron Loup, should be thought of as quality major leaguers who can help a contending team (as long as they’re healthy). Signing them will require an incentive-laden deal, and also probably an opt-out if they are not added to the 40-man by a specific date. These would be major league signings in all but name.

Rich Hill

Now 41 and topping out below 90 mph, Rich Hill still has one of the best fastball-curve combos in baseball, with his fastball rising significantly and his curve dropping significantly, and the two operating on mirrored planes, which some evidence suggest increases the deception.

Rob Bradford of WEEI reports that the Rays are one of three teams known to be interested in Hill, while Hill, for his part, seems to want to play for a winner:

“Now it’s almost looking at Vegas and seeing who is going to win the World Series next year and calling them up. That’s how I feel. I want to win a Word Series and I want to be a part of that.

Hypothetically that makes Tampa Bay a decent fit, but the questions here are all about role. With the Rays, Hill would most likely slide into a high leverage AND bulk relief role (similar to what Beeks has done), where his One Weird Trick (fastball-curve combo) could play up and avoid overexposure. He’s worked out of the bullpen before, but not since 2014, and this signing would be entirely dependent on him being open to the change.

Tony Cingrani

Cingrani hasn’t pitched since 2018, when he has labrum surgery, but he threw a showcase for multiple teams on Monday, and it’s entirely a question now of how the stuff looked. Cingrani has always had a live fastball from the left side, although it’s had several different shapes over his career, and he’s paired it with a decent breaking ball and changeup.

I doubt any team thinks Cingrani is a starter in 2021, but if recovered, the 31 year old has the arm talent to succeed in either a short or medium relief role.

Jake McGee

McGee was once one of the best relievers in Rays history, blowing people away with his tremendous fastball and pinpoint command. He faltered in Colorado, the way so many pitchers have, but then the Dodgers got him back to pitching the way he had before in Tampa Bay — all fastball all the time — and wouldn’t you know it, he was dominant again.

This is no longer the best-in-baseball fastball we Rays fans remember, but it’s still excellent, and 2020 proved that it still plays.

Justin Wilson

It seems odd to call someone whose pitched nearly 430 relief innings over a nine year career, and who’s produced over one WAR in a season three times “underrated,” but that’s exactly what Justin Wilson is. The fact that he’s only been given the opportunity to collect 18 saves over that span belies the fact that Wilson has put together a fantastic lefty-reliever career, and at 33 the stuff is still there.

In fact, Wilson has the best lefty stuff on the free agent market at all.

Lefty free agents, Justin Wilson highlighted

He makes his living with a blazing left-handed fastball that features tremendous ride, and then he snaps a very hard cutter off of that, with enough separation from the fastball to miss bats.

Those two pitches are enough to make Wilson good, but it’s his breaking balls — which he basically never throws — that make him intriguing. According to Brooks, Wilson threw only six curves and eight sliders in 2020, but the ones he did were remarkable. For reference, the red triangle right below Wilson’s slider is James Paxton’s curve, which averaged 80.1 mph.

Don’t get me wrong, at this point Wilson is a high-leverage short-relief lefty. There’s no going back. But put these pitch shapes on a 21 year old and he’d be a top-100 starting pitcher prospect.

Loup B

These are polished major league pitchers who have had recent major league success, and probably have enough left in the tank for one or two more runs at the league. They’re not as certain to be offered major league deals as the three previous pitchers, but are a step above “projects.”

Jose Alvarez

Alvarez is one of those classic sidearm sinker-slider lefties with good horizontal movement on his decently hard fastball, and a plus changeup that doesn’t always play nice with his arm angle against righties.

Lefty free agents, Jose Alvarez highlighted

His slider isn’t amazing, but it’s good enough to keep hitters honest about the outside of the strike zone. He already pitches from the third base side where he can jam lefties effectively. He’s performed exactly as expected, holding lefties to a career .287 wOBA.

Tony Watson

Four years older and with a bit less velocity but a bit more sink, Watson is basically a poor man’s Alvarez. Both come with nearly a decade of proof that they can retire lefties.

Loup C

These are pitchers who have a good pitch or two, but haven’t been able to put it all together and succeed on the major league level. It’s possible to look at them and ennsvision success, but they’ll need to really impress in camp to earn a 40-man spot from opening day.

The Rays actually have somebody who fits this description perfectly already. Dietrich Enns will be in this year’s major league camp, with a real chance to make the team at some point in the season. I wrote about Enns back when the Rays signed him, and the short version is: he has previously gotten incredible rise on his fastball, much like Colin Poche, and with the reported velocity improvements, he could be electric.

Neil Solondz wrote about Enns back in December, and hosted him on the podcast, which is very much worth your listen. There is smoke out there around Enns, so don’t be surprised when he’s pitching meaningful innings for the big league team.

Beyond Enns, there are still a few interesting pitches out there belonging to pitchers that should definitely be available on a minor league contract:

Lefty Free Agents

Mike Kickham’s sweeping curve will always keep him in the mix for an “In Case Of Emergency Break Glass” type LOOGY position. Sam Freeman’s fastball-splitter-slider collection reminds me of a lefty version of Brandon Gomes (who was really a very good pitcher when he was healthy and not trying to force in a cutter). T.J. McFarland can make the baseball sink. And Tyler Anderson has a vertical fastball-curve combo that will make you ask, “Is that lefty Tyler Glasnow minus ten miles per hour and with short hair?” (No one will ask this.)

Conclusion

There isn’t 40-man roster space available to improve the Rays pitching staff, so any additions need to be made via minor league signings. This is normal! But the Rays will begin the season pretty thin in terms of left-handed relief pitchers, especially if they end up having to DFA Ryan Sherriff to make room for Chris Archer.

There are, however, players who would improve this group available on the free agent market, some of whom might be willing to take a minor league deal knowing that as soon as camp starts, three major league roster spots will open up. Aaron Loup showed that this is a viable path to relevance in Tampa Bay, and his replacement could come on board the same way.