Longtime NPB right-hander Naoyuki Uwasawa will be one of the more interesting non-roster players in Rays camp but also throughout the league in general. The 30-year-old righty reportedly turned down guaranteed offers to ink a minor league deal with Tampa Bay that’d pay him a $2.5MM base in the big leagues with another $1MM available via incentives. The former Nippon-Ham Fighters righty brings a sharp 3.19 career ERA from NPB to the Rays organization, but his lack of velocity (90.8 mph average fastball in ’23) and sub-par strikeout rate (17.8% in ’23, 19.7% career) limited his appeal on the market.
The Rays’ knack for maximizing pitching talent played a role in Uwasawa’s decision to sign there. If they’re able to help him successfully make the jump from NPB to MLB, it’ll serve as a launching pad back to free agency. As Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times writes, Uwasawa’s deal follows the industry standard for players coming over from NPB, the KBO and the CPBL in that it allows him to become a free agent after its conclusion. Uwasawa obviously won’t have the requisite six years of MLB service that’s typically required for free agency, but this provision is included in most (though not all) contracts for players signing out of foreign professional leagues.
Uwasawa’s ability to handle big league opponents (or his lack thereof) will be important for a Rays club that is rife with uncertainty in the rotation. Tampa Bay is no stranger to patchwork starting staffs, but this year’s group tests the limits of even their piecemeal approach to rotation construction. Top starters Zach Eflin and Aaron Civale both have lengthy injury histories. The former tossed a career-high 177 2/3 innings in 2023 but has averaged only 22.8 starts per 162-game season since 2017, due largely to chronic knee troubles that have led to a trio of surgeries. Civale has never reached 125 innings in a big league season.
Beyond that group, there’s reliever-turned-starter Zack Littell, who pitched just 104 innings last year and hasn’t been a full-time starter since the 2018 minor league season. Young arms like Ryan Pepiot and Taj Bradley have high ceilings but are unproven. Pepiot pitched just 46 innings between the majors and minors last year, thanks to injuries, while Bradley was one of the game’s most homer-prone starters (1.98 HR/9) as he posted a 5.59 ERA during last year’s debut effort. The Rays will get Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs back later in the season, but likely not until the second half. Both are rehabbing from major arm surgeries. Righty Shane Baz will be back in the fold after completing his own rehab from 2022 Tommy John surgery, but he’ll surely be on an innings limit.
The wobbly nature of the Tampa Bay starting staff will lead to some interesting pitcher usage. Adam Berry of MLB.com writes that relievers Chris Devenski and Tyler Alexander will both be stretched out to pitching three innings in camp. Neither is expected to take a full starting gig early on, but both are being viewed as potential bulk relievers who can be deployed behind openers or as swingmen who can work long relief as game script dictates. Alexander is no stranger to that role, having been a multi-inning reliever in Detroit.
For Devenski, it’s not a role he’s filled in the big leagues, but the right-hander tells Berry he’s excited for it. “My whole Minor League career, I was a starter, so I have experience there doing that,” says the 33-year-old righty. “It’s something that’s in me that I’ve always taken a liking to. Let’s go with it.”
Devenski was a powerhouse reliever with the Astros early in his career, pitching to a 2.38 ERA with a 28.2% strikeout rate and 6.4% walk rate in his first 189 innings from 2016-17. His production dipped in the two years thereafter, and injuries eventually derailed his career even further. From 2020-22, Devenski pitched just 25 2/3 big league innings, thanks largely to a Tommy John procedure. He tossed 42 1/3 frames between the Halos and Rays last season, logging a 4.46 ERA, 24.3% strikeout rate and 6.4% walk rate.
Turning to the team’s position player mix, it’s fair to wonder whether an ever-active Rays club is done shuffling the roster just yet. Last week’s signing of Amed Rosario on a one-year deal worth just $1.5MM came as a surprise on multiple levels, for instance, and Topkin notes in the same piece linked above that the addition of Rosario could make it easier for the Rays to move first baseman/designated hitter Harold Ramirez.
The two players don’t necessarily overlap in terms of positional fit, but both will see the bulk of their playing time against left-handed pitching. Rosario is a career .298/.339/.467 hitter against southpaws (121 wRC+), while Ramirez hits for a higher average but with lesser power at .323/.364/.453 (129 wRC+). Against lefties anyhow, Rosario is a comparable hitter with more speed and certainly more defensive utility. For a Rays team that’s concerned about payroll, signing Rosario at $1.5MM and trading Ramirez and his $3.8MM makes some sense. Becoming more versatile, saving a net $2.3MM and perhaps netting some talent in return for Ramirez could be a nice gambit all around.
Then again, Ramirez has been on the trade block for much of the offseason, and no deal has come to fruition. His limited defensive skill set and lack of power don’t help his trade value, but the 29-year-old is an affordable righty bat who’s posted a combined .306/.342/.438 slash in 869 plate appearances over the past two seasons.