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Three Rays bullpen prospects to watch

“Stable” reinforcements are on the way

Austin Vernon makes Bowling Green debut

The Rays are known for finding bullpen talent. Pitchers like Jason Adam, Andrew Kittredge, the 2019 Nick Anderson, were at best unheralded, and in some cases close to forgotten. While some of these players have come through trades, others have made their way through the Rays farm system. And for those of you wondering whether the Rays farm still boasts a full stable, the answer is yes.

Antonio Menendez

Antonio Menendez was drafted in the 14th round of the 2021 draft out of Wake Forest as a 6 foot 4 RHP with a unique aspect to his delivery. Menendez played across three different levels; he started in the Rookie League, then he got some innings in Single-A, but he finished the season with Bowling Green. He put up solid numbers across the board with 1.70 ERA in 37 innings. He was able to combine good command while avoiding quality contact. He punched out 48 batters and only walked 10. On the other hand, the opposition had a .540 OPS while just hitting 0.24 homers per 9 innings.

What makes Menendez singular is that he provides three different arms slots, which makes the hitter feel completely lost. Over the top, he throws a regular fastball that touches 93, with a devastating curveball that sits around the high 70s. With the side arm release point, he throws a slider-fastball combination, and he is starting to involve the changeup in his repertoire. In the submarine-style pitching, he features a four-seam and two-seam combo that allow hitters to have a new perspective on his hard stuff.

One of Menendez’s strengths is the ability to tunnel his pitches. In every arm slot, there is a minimum of 2 options that the opponent can get, and he can pick among many options, depending on the hitter. Unless he is tipping his pitches it would be mission impossible to recognize which pitch is he going to execute.

He seems to be one of those Rays’ relievers that are made in a lab, they are unique and the success rate seems to be extremely high.

Evan Reifert

On November 13th of 2021, the Rays traded utility Mike Brosseau for relief pitcher Evan Reifert. The 23-year-old right-hander pitched across three levels this season; gathering a 4.58 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP in 37.1 innings pitched.

At first sight, the predominant numbers don’t look special. However, when you take a deep look at his strikeouts he seems to be an elite arm. Evan has 62 strikeouts, which translates into an outstanding 14.95 K/9. Also, when Reifert allows balls in play he is very successful — opponents had a .595 OPS against him with just two homeruns last season.

This October, Reifert continued his dominance in the AFL. He didn’t allow a run in 11 innings while recording a 62.5 K%. Opponents hit just .028 against him. For obvious reasons, he won the AFL relief pitcher of the year.

It will be interesting to see at which level Reifert starts 2022 and where he ends up. Last year he got all the way to Double-A, so he may well reach Durham by the end of the year. He will need to be added to the 40-man roster because he is rule-5 draft eligible in 2023.

Austin Vernon

Austin Vernon was picked in the 10th round of the 2021 draft. The North Carolina Central star has been a sneaky late-rounder for the Rays. In 78.2 innings he gathered a 2.40 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP while only allowing a .535 OPS between Single-A and High-A. During his first full year in the minors, Vernon turned into a strikeout machine; he punched out 114 in 78.2 innings. That’s exactly what the Rays’ coaching staff is looking for when building a future reliever; a high strikeout percentage with electric stuff.

After promotion to High-A Vernon struggled briefly. He had a 4.50 ERA in 20 innings and lost some command, giving up a free pass 18 times in 20 innings (8.10 BB/9). But there were encouraging signs. He avoided good contact, and opponents only batted .176/.367/.221 when he was on the mound. He finished the season with an impressive playoff performance.

Austin Vernon is a big guy, at 6’8 and 265. This physical advantage lets him have a longer stride and can add more power to his fastball. This is why Vernon reminds me of a young Tyler Glasnow, who also had trouble staying in the strike zone earlier in his career. Vernon can throw a lively fastball that can touch 97, with a hammer curveball that hits the low 80s, and an above-average changeup that is developing at its finest.

The future of the stable appears to be in safe hands; the Rays keep finding this type of under-the-radar arms that rake in the minors. We can just imagine the Rays playing in, say, the 2025 postseason, with these three pitchers holding down the back innings.