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Rays Roundtable: Free Agent Starting Pitcher

Looking for one more arm to round out the depth chart.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres
Jakob Junis
Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays have made two major additions and one significant subtraction from the starting pitching depth chart this off-season, trading Tyler Glasnow to the Dodgers, receiving Ryan Pepiot in return, and adding NPB RHP Naoyuki Uwasawa on a minor league deal that would pay up to $3.5 million in the majors.

These moves set the rotation depth as follows:

  • RHP Zach Eflin
  • RHP Zack Littell
  • RHP Aaron Civale
  • RHP Ryan Pepiot
  • RHP Taj Bradley
  • RHP Naoyuki Uwasawa (opt out in March)

From there, we have three injured pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery in RHP Shane Baz (expected May return), LHP Jeffrey Springs (June), RHP Drew Rasmussen (July), as well as ace LHP Shane McClanahan (unlikely to return this season).

The next man up on the farm is LHP Jacob Lopez, who is already on the 40-man roster and got a cup of coffee in 2023 in short relief, and then LHP Mason Montgomery. Other wild cards in Triple-A are former highly rated prospects recovering from injury in RHP Cole Wilcox and LHP Brendan McKay.

Add to mix three recently added longmen LHP Tyler Alexander (claimed off waivers, two years remaining on rookie contract) and the two relievers the Rays are stretching out this Spring in RHP Chris Devenski (re-signed to $1 million deal with an option for 2025) and NPB reliever RHP Jacob Waguespack (non-roster invite), as well as the ever-present RHP Erasmo Ramirez (non-roster invite), and it’s an interesting mix of arms that can eat innings for the Rays in 2024.

But the question is... is this enough?

It might be, but if the Rays are in the market to add one more arm, here are a couple options.

Daniel Vonderwalde: Jakob Junis has Rays written all over him. The ex-Giant had one of the best seasons of his career in 2023, putting together a career-best in K% 26.2 and xWOBA .298. The ERA was fine at 3.87 in 68 innings pitched, but what is more than encouraging is his repertoire change from a year before. The slider became his major weapon, followed by a sinker and a change-up.

Since he dropped his fastball usage in 2021 and changed the shape of his slider Junis has been a different breed. The 31-year-old added more vertical break to his slider which has been the real difference maker. He is the perfect bulk guy or 6th man of the rotation that the front office is looking for.

Cole Mitchem: Spencer Turnbull has pitched in parts of five MLB seasons, all of which were in Detroit. Turnbull and the Tigers fell out of favor with one another in 2023 though as he struggled through injury and performance. Detroit non-tendered Turnbull in November.

While that description doesn’t sound too rosy, the good news is that Turnbull still possesses outlier traits in many of his pitch profiles.

His fastballs sit around 93 mph and he can manipulate the shapes depending on batter handedness. His sinker drops at an above average rate and his four seam has big cutting action. He’s not afraid to use a changeup to both righties and lefties and is able to generate big movement on the pitch. His mid 80’s slider looks like a solid offering as well and he’s also flashed a bigger curveball. With better health, Turnbull is a bounce back candidate who will likely be signed for not much more than the big-league minimum salary.

Danny Russell: The right target here has to be a pitcher willing to sign for a minor league deal and eager to work with the Rays pitching lab, and to that I offer the ultimate “I can fix him” candidate: RHP Vince Velasquez.

He gets incredible extension, which the Rays appreciate, and a fastball that plays well above its average velocity. He is also interesting in that his slider is his most used pitch, and he has a knuckle curve that I love but he seldom throws.

After finally starting to piece together a strong performance out of his always promising profile as a Pirate last season (3.87 ERA over eight starts) Velasquez needed elbow surgery last June to address a UCL injury, but per reports was able to begin his recovery after four months, which puts him on pace for a return in May or June 2024.

Like several pitchers before him, I can’t imagine a better place for Velasquez to sign in hopes of putting his career back on track following an elbow injury, or a better low-pressure situation, and the Rays will most assuredly eventually need his services.

Last season 17 pitchers made a start for the Rays, and among them only four were short relievers (Shawn Armstrong, Calvin Faucher, Trevor Kelley, Javy Guerra). There’s ample opportunity in Tampa Bay for Velasquez.