Inside the stable: A primer on the Rays’ fearsome bullpen
The Tampa Bay Rays have crossed the desert on some no-name horses.
Advancing from the AL playoffs in San Diego to the World Series in Arlington, Texas, manager Kevin Cash leaned hard on his bullpen — a group he described as “a whole damn stable of guys who throw 98 miles per hour” during a memorable spat with the Yankees in September.
The tagline has come to define the small-market Rays. The relief corps has no thoroughbreds, no All-Stars, no big-money headliners — Aaron Loup is the highest-paid reliever on the roster after signing a $1.65 million, one-year deal.
Yet the bullpen has dominated all year. Twelve different pitchers converted at least one save during the regular season, matching the major league record despite the compressed schedule, and the group had a 3.37 ERA, third in the majors. They’ve been just as overpowering in October.
Cash has the utmost confidence in the crew, a fact that showed when he gave notably early hooks to starters Blake Snell and Charlie Morton in Games 6 and 7 of the AL Championship Series to hold off the Houston Astros.
“I wouldn’t want to hit our group right now,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said.
The bullpen is versatile and deep, shoving high heat at hitters from all angles. Yet for most baseball fans, the individuals remain largely anonymous.
For viewers curious who’s waiting behind those stable doors, here’s a compendium on Cash’s top horses:
NICK ANDERSON, RHP — The Rays’ best reliever also may be its most unlikely. Anderson finished his college career at NAIA Mayville State in 2012, then was a 32nd-round pick by the Brewers but didn’t sign. He played two years of independent ball, spent a year remodeling homes, then returned to indy ball in ’15. The Twins snatched him up for their minor league system that season, he reached the majors with Miami in 2019, and this year he posted a 0.55 ERA in 19 regular-season games for Tampa Bay. The 30-year-old throws just two pitches — a rising fastball and sharp breaking ball — both with excellent command. Standing 6-foot-6, he’s unhittable for righties, plenty tough versus lefties and stretched out for multiple innings if needed. Cash will use him at any point in the game, likely against the top of the Dodgers’ lineup.
PETE FAIRBANKS, RHP — The University of Missouri alum had Tommy John surgery twice before debuting in the majors with Texas in 2019. Tampa Bay traded for him after eight appearances, and he’s now the stable’s hardest thrower, averaging 97.9 mph on his fastball and reaching 100. His best pitch, though, is his slider, a swing-and-miss offering with heavy drop. In the AL playoffs, he became the 13th Rays reliever to get a save this year. Oddly, Fairbanks has been better in his career against lefties than righties. With lefties Corey Seager, Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger spread throughout LA’s lineup, Fairbanks’ versatility should be tested.
DIEGO CASTILLO, RHP — Among the club’s few homegrown bullpen pieces, Castillo went viral last year for his physics-defying two-seam fastball, a frisbee pitch that runs in toward right-handed hitters as hot as 99 mph. The 26-year-old pairs it with a slider that darts in the opposite direction, and he throws both pitches from a lower arm slot than Anderson and Fairbanks, allowing him to induce plenty of groundballs. He was hit hard by the middle of Houston’s lineup in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series but will still be a trusted option for the heart of Los Angeles’ order.
JOSÈ ALVARADO, LHP — Another success from the Rays’ farm system, Alvarado was among baseball’s best relievers in 2018, but injuries have slowed him since. He missed the end of this season with shoulder inflammation but returned in the AL Championship Series with two scoreless outings — albeit with shaky control. Wild at times, Alvarado still dominates because his sinker can reach 101 mph and is effective against righties and lefties.
RYAN THOMPSON, RHP — The side-arming Thompson releases the ball about 3 ½ feet off the ground, nearly half as low as Tampa Bay’s other righty relievers. That low angle helps Thompson generate impressive sink on his fastball, and the former Astros prospect is a groundball machine. Cash has used him aggressively with runners on base, hoping for a double play ball. Thompson also has a swing-and-miss breaking ball and steady command of both pitches.
JOHN CURTISS, RHP — A journeyman recently with the Twins, Phillies and Angels, Curtiss has found a home as a reliable strike thrower with the Rays. He walked just three in 25 innings during the regular season, and Cash has used him as a relief opener a few times, including in ALCS Game 5. The former Texas Longhorn doesn’t throw as hard as Anderson or Fairbanks, but he has a similar two-pitch repertoire. The 27-year-old hasn’t been as sharp in the postseason, walking four in 6 2/3 innings.
AARON LOUP, LHP — A new rule requiring pitchers to face at least three batters in 2020 seemingly put Loup’s career in jeopardy. The 32-year-old carved out eight solid seasons as a lefty specialist prior to the rule change, rarely facing right-handed hitters, who have a far easier time picking up the ball from his side-winding delivery. And yet, Loup has thrived in his first season with the Rays, using a fairly new cut fastball to hold righty hitters to a .192 average in the regular season while continuing to dominate lefties. Cash would love to match Loup up against NLCS stars Seager or Bellinger with two outs, but it’s no disaster if Loup does have to face some righty hitters, too.
THE REST: RHP Aaron Slegers is among the tallest pitchers ever at 6-foot-10 and has exceptional control. ... LHP Josh Fleming was the Rays’ fifth starter in September but has only pitched once this postseason. ... LHP Shane McLanahan, Tampa Bay’s 2018 first-round draft pick, made his big league debut during the AL Division Series. The 23-year-old could crack the 2021 starting rotation. For now, he’s mostly around for long relief/mopup duty.
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