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Five free agent pitchers that fit The Rays Way

Diving into some available arms on the open market ahead of next week’s winter meetings.

Seattle Mariners v Los Angeles Angels
Michael Lorenzen
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Over the past few winters the Tampa Bay Rays have been very active in the free agent pitching market. Corey Kluber, Brooks Raley, and Jason Adam were inked to major league contracts before the 2022 season, and Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, and Collin McHugh were signed in the previous offseason.

While none of these signings were of the super splashy variety, the Rays have seen successful results from this group of pitchers overall. Heading into 2023, the need for pitching is not as obvious. Realistically, the Rays could roll into the season with the arms that are currently on the roster and probably be just fine. As things stand today, FanGraphs projects the Rays to have the 6th best pitching staff in MLB by WAR.

Although, the pitching corps is undoubtedly in good shape, the always opportunistic and creative Rays will not shy away from targeting a pitcher they think has some untapped potential. The Rays also appear to have some wiggle room spending-wise as their current payroll is projected to be about $18M less than the final figure they landed on in 2022 (though they do seem likely to spend on a hitter or two this winter).

So, it’s not a given that the Rays will add pitching this offseason, but if they do, who fits the profile that they’ve been after recently?

Starting Pitcher/Bulk Options

The Rays have a strong foursome at the top of their rotation in Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Drew Rasmussen, and Jeffrey Springs. The fifth starter spot is a bit up in the air though, and the leading candidates appear to be Luis Patino, Yonny Chirinos, Josh Fleming, top pitching prospect Taj Bradley, or a new roster addition.

If the Rays look to add a veteran on a short-term contract to stabilize the back end of the rotation, just like they did in previous seasons, here are a few names that could make sense.

Michael Lorenzen

Lorenzen has worn many hats in his career as far as pitching roles go. Starting games, closing games, middle relief, set-up duties, you name it and Lorenzen has probably done it. He even started big league games as an outfielder for a period of time a few years ago!

Last season, Lorenzen worked exclusively as a starting pitcher for the Angels where he posted a 4.24 ERA and 4.31 FIP over 18 starts. He figures to hit the market again this offseason looking for another starting gig, but his flexibility to pitch in many different roles is likely very appealing to a team like Tampa Bay.

The 30-year-old gets his outs using a wide array of offerings, many of which possess qualities that the Rays have sought out in other arms before. He works with both a four-seam fastball and a sinker that sit in the mid-90’s with above average spin rates. He also varies the usage of these two pitches depending on the handedness of the hitter (more sinkers to righties, more four-seams to lefties) in the exact same fashion that many Rays pitchers currently do.

Both of his fastballs also generate a considerable amount of horizontal movement, which the Rays have placed a strong emphasis on recently. And speaking of horizontal movement, Lorenzen also uses a sweeping slider as his primary out-pitch, which is exactly what free agent targets Collin McHugh, Corey Kluber, and Brooks Raley primarily use as well.

Mix in a curveball that gets big vertical drop, as well as a useable cutter and changeup, we’re looking at a pitch mix with a ton of intriguing ingredients here. Lorenzen’s 20.7 K% and 10.7 BB% in 2022 were both mediocre figures, but with new and improved coaching voices, hitter attack plans, and cues for throwing strikes, the Tampa Bay Rays may just be the team to help him blossom as a starter.

Seth Lugo

The 33-year-old Lugo spent the 2022 campaign pitching out of the Mets bullpen and turned in a quality season (65 IP, 3.60 ERA, 3.76 FIP). He’s being mentioned in the starting/bulk pitcher category here because he is reportedly drawing interest as a starter this winter.

Lugo worked as a starting pitcher in his first three seasons (2016-2018) and made a handful of starts in 2020 as well. He’s only been working in relief over the past two years, but the Rays have had recent success in turning relievers into starters (see Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs). Lugo could be the next in line.

Lugo’s curveball has always been his prized possession and he used it more than any of his other pitches in 2022. The pitch spins at an average of over 3,200 RPM which is right up there with the best in the sport. The high spinning nature of the pitch creates a ton of vertical dropping movement, which is also a quality found in the curveballs of Rays pitchers Calvin Faucher and Tyler Glasnow, two trade acquisitions.

He pairs that right hook with a riding four-seam that sits in the mid-90’s, as well as a sinker and sharp upper 80’s slider that he uses sparingly. If a team thinks his four-pitch mix is diverse enough to work in longer stints, it could make sense to give Lugo a crack at earning a rotation spot with a relief role as a fallback option.

Relief Options

Tommy Kahnle

After many successful seasons with the White Sox and Yankees, Tommy John Surgery caused Kahnle to sit out for the majority of the past three seasons. He finally made it back to MLB at the end of 2022 and finished on a high note. Kahnle only pitched in 12.2 innings last year for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but put up an excellent 30.4 K%, 6.5 BB%, and 68.0% groundball rate.

Kahnle’s groundball rate ranked in the top 5 among all pitchers who threw at least 10 innings last season and was largely due to the incredible changeup that he throws. He used the pitch a whopping 76.4 percent of the time which was easily the highest mark in baseball.

His changeup also averages a very firm 89.8 mph and generates over 31 inches of drop per Statcast, which is a combination of traits that is only found in a handful of big-league changeups. An important note here is that one of the other rare changeups that does meet these two criteria is thrown by the Rays very own Jason Adam, and was certainly a big reason why they targeted him last offseason.

The 33-year-old Kahnle also has a 96 mph four-seam in his back pocket, so he isn’t exactly a one-trick-pony either. This is the type of high-upside reliever who shouldn’t cost all that much given his age and recent injury history but could be a real difference maker for a team in 2023. Jon Heyman has reported that many teams have checked in on the right-hander already.

Shelby Miller

The 32-year-old Miller has had a long career with many ups and downs. And while you may not have realized he’s still pitching in MLB, he actually has quietly reinvented himself over the last year or so.

Shelby is now a reliever pitching only in short stints and split time in the 2022 season between the Yankees and Giants. He threw very well at the Triple-A level (53.1 innings, 31.2 K%, 9.5 BB%, 2.87 ERA) and was rewarded with a late season cameo in San Francisco where he struck out 14 of the 30 hitters he faced.

Miller is succeeding with a mid-90’s fastball that gets excellent riding action towards the top of the zone. He pairs that good heater with an 82-mph slider that generates big horizontal sweep. These unique pitch qualities have been commonplace among arms in this Rays stable in recent years.

On top of the intriguing movement patterns in his pitches, Miller also shows off elite release extension and spin rates on his offerings. Because of these pitch traits, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Miller land a guaranteed big league contract this winter.

Pierce Johnson

Johnson has been a very successful under-the-radar reliever for the San Diego Padres in recent years. He owns a 3.39 ERA, 3.19 FIP, and 32.2 K% over the past 3 seasons (93 IP) combined.

The 31-year-old was still effective in 2022 but did miss a large chunk in the middle of the season due to forearm tendinitis. Fortunately, he was able to come back and pitch meaningful innings for the Padres down the stretch.

The curveball is Johnson’s bread and butter, he throws the pitch more often than anybody in baseball. It’s thrown at a hard 84-mph, spins at a rate in the 92nd percentile, and possesses above average movement in both directions. The offering has always produced great results for Johnson, which also speaks to the good command he has of the pitch given the frequency he’s throwing it at.

He pairs his breaking ball with an active 95-mph fastball that has above average movement as well. This is a power relief profile that is likely available for a fraction of the price that many of the top arms in the class will go for.