After a long and, frankly, weird Spring Training/Summer Camp — pockmarked with fits and starts because of the pandemic — the regular season is finally upon us … albeit a much shorter one. Should there even be a baseball season? Probably not, yet here we are. At any rate, on Friday, the Tampa Bay Rays — clear contenders to dethrone the New York Yankees for the American League East crown — will begin their 2020 postseason push in earnest when the Toronto Blue Jays come to start the sprint campaign.
Keegan Matheson and Juan Toribio (MLB.com) summarized the meeting of the two AL East rivals well, saying:
The Rays are led by perhaps the best pitching staff in the Majors. Tampa Bay has three legitimate AL Cy Young Award candidates in Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Charlie Morton. The Rays also have a plethora of options in the bullpen, where they’re led by Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo. The club also bolstered its lineup by signing Japanese slugger Yoshi Tsutsugo and making individual trades for Hunter Renfroe and José Martínez.
The Blue Jays don’t quite have the pitching the Rays do, but they’re led by a spectacular young core of position players. Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are the four main pieces, and if all continue to improve, they could form one of the best lineups in the AL this season. In order to complement the young core, the Blue Jays made a free agent splash, signing starter Hyun Jin Ryu to a four-year deal.— Keegan Matheson and Juan Toribio
The Rays are coming off an impressive 2019 campaign which resulted in their first postseason berth since 2013. They posted a 96-66 record en route to a Wildcard spot (and subsequent victory) and an American League Division Series appearance, where they fell three games to two to Houston. They lost a few critical pieces from last season, namely Tommy Pham, Avisail Garcia, and Emilio Pagan, yet the front office feels it bolstered the returning core of players with the additions of Tsutsugo, Martínez, and Renfroe.
For the Blue Jays, last season represented a stepping stone. And their young talented core — headlined by Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Cavan Biggio — returns for the 2020 season. If all three players can take a step forward this season, Toronto could certainly make a run to a playoff position given the expansion of postseason play from 10 teams to 16.
Kevin Cash will lean on Charlie Morton, Ryan Yarbrough, and a pitcher to be named before the series finale … although it would be reasonable to assume Yonny Chirinos will take the mound at some point. Charlie Montoyo will counter with Hyun Jin Ryu, Matt Shoemaker, and a pitcher to be named before the series finale.
Charlie Morton threw 31 of 51 pitches for strikes (61% strike rate) in his final tuneup before Opening Day. Morton fanned five and walked one while allowing three hits across 2-2/3 innings. If the right-hander is efficient, he will probably be able to go five-plus innings on Friday. Morton, who is slated to make the first Opening Day start of his 13-year big-league career, is 2-1 with a 2.39 ERA in six games against the Blue Jays, and 8-6 with a 2.85 ERA in 20 starts at the Trop.
Hyun Jin Ryu is set to make his second consecutive Opening Day start. The southpaw is coming off a great season with Los Angeles, where he ended the year with a 2.32 ERA. In his final intrasquad game in Toronto, Ryu threw five innings and nearly 80 pitches, saying he felt ready to take on a regular workload. Given that Ryu limited left-handed hitters to a .199 batting average and a .225 wOBA last season, while righties hit .245 against him with a .275 wOBA, expect Cash to stack as many right-handed options as possible. Last season, Ryu relied primarily on an 80 mph changeup with natural sink and a 91 mph four-seam fastball (which also has natural sinking action), while also mixing in an 87 mph worm-killer cutter, a 90 mph sinker with sharp downward bite, and a 73 mph curveball with sweeping glove-side movement.
Ryan Yarbrough threw 87 pitches during Monday’s intrasquad start, his final tuneup before Opening Weekend. The left-hander did run into some trouble, however, allowing five earned runs across 4-1/3 innings. At any rate, Yarbrough looked good in previous simulated game/scrimmage opportunities during Summer Camp and put together a solid 11-6 record, 4.13 ERA/3.55 FIP across 28 outings (14 starts) a season ago. He went 3-1 with a 2.18 ERA in five outings against the Blue Jays in 2019.
Matt Shoemaker was able to stay in shape while the season was suspended and after an abbreviated 2019 campaign. Given his work during Summer Camp, he shouldn’t have any pitch count limitations to begin the season. The right-hander posted a 1.57 ERA and 0.87 WHIP over 28-2/3 innings across five starts before suffering a torn ACL in April 2019 which forced him to miss the balance of the season. Shoemaker is 4-0 with a 1.90 ERA in four starts against the Rays, and 3-0 with a 2.04 ERA in three Tropicana Field starts. Last season, he relied primarily on a whiffy 85 mph splitter with arm side fade and a 91 mph sinker with some run, while also mixing in a whiffy 91 mph four-seam fastball and an 82 mph worm killer slider with 12-6 movement.
Yonny Chirinos threw live batting practice against Kevin Kiermaier, Jose Martinez, and Mike Brosseau among others on Thursday. His velocity was normal (92-94 mph on the Rays’ in-house radar, which has been a touch conservative during Summer Camp) and he, according to Solondz, appeared to have good sink on his fastball and a solid slider across four innings of work. He threw 42 of 62 pitches for strikes (68% strike rate). Given the amount of time the right-hander missed because of COVID-19, he may piggyback behind someone like Trevor Richards for the time being.
I will update this piece once Sunday’s starters become clear.
— Rays officials said Thursday they are working on plans for what if any, pomp and circumstance types of things (teams being introduced along the baselines, a familiar name throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, etc.) that will take place ahead of Friday’s game.
— The Rays are 11-11 in season openers, 8-7 at home, and 2-2 against the Jays.
— Per Neil Solondz (Rays Radio), the Rays added catcher Rene Pinto to the Port Charlotte roster. Pinto, an original Tampa Bay sign, was in Spring Training in February and March. That gives the Rays five catchers in the 60-player pool.