By Marc Topkin/ Tampa Bay Times
The first names happen to be the same, but there actually is a deep bond between Rays high-end pitching prospects Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz.
“We’re like a singular being,” McClanahan said. “We do everything together. We throw together. We live together. We run together.”
So it was only fitting they came together to Tropicana Field on Sunday for the opportunity to pitch an inning each in a simulated game and show Rays officials — and some of the hitters — what’s soon to come.
“That’s pretty exciting stuff to watch,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Every hitter kind of came out of the box … with their eyes opened really wide because that’s about as good a stuff as you’re going to see out of (21-23)-year-old young men.”
And even more impressive because they pitched like they’re more advanced.
“The biggest thing for me is their ability to throw strikes and their understanding of how to make a small adjustment to get back in the zone if they miss,” catcher Mike Zunino said.
“A lot of time with young players, that’s what makes them spiral. They throw a couple balls in a row, they don’t necessarily have the adjustment right in their back pocket to go to. These guys are extremely polished.”
McClanahan, 23, is further along. The 2018 first-round pick from USF with a powerful left arm moved through three levels last season to get to Double-A Montgomery and earned an invite to the big-league spring training, where he made a strong impression.
After three-plus months of shutdown he spent playing catch in Ryan Yarbrough’s backyard and a week of Spring 2.0 workouts with the Port Charlotte group, he looked like he hadn’t missed a day.
A blazing four-seam fastball from the left side paired with a sometimes-slider sometimes-curve that pitching people call a slurve and hitters have less polite words for proved it.
“There’s not too many lefties out there throwing 99 with that breaker,” Zunino said.
Whatever you want to call it, Cash said “Shane McClanahan’s breaking ball right now, it’s a big-league weapon and would be rated as a really, really good one.” Could McClanahan get to show it during this abbreviated 60-game season?
Being invited to be part of the 60-player pool was the first step, though not being on the 40-man roster is an issue to some degree.
There’s also a matter of role. McClanahan has been a starter in the minors, and considers himself one, though his quicker path to the majors might be as a reliever, even though the Rays have plenty of talent and depth.
“I think he’d be just fine in whatever role,” Cash said. “His stuff will play in any league, in any inning.” Given the extreme uncertainties of this season, where player availability and team needs can change daily based on Covid-19 testing and other protocols, being good and being healthy might be enough.
McClanahan is sure he can handle it.
“Absolutely,” he said. “You don’t play this game to be a minor-leaguer. You play the game to ultimately achieve that goal of becoming a big-league player. So I know I’m ready. I put in the work and whenever that time comes, I’ll be ready.”
Baz is the just-turned 21-year-old who joined pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows as the bountiful return from Pittsburgh in the July 2018 Chris Archer trade. He is probably the least likely of the 60 Rays in the two camps who will get to play in the majors this season, behind No 1 overall prospect shortstop phenom Wander Franco.
That doesn’t diminish the excitement Baz felt in being invited to camp, nor the opportunity to pitch regularly, given the cancellation of the minor-league season that would have seen him start at advanced Class-A Port Charlotte anyway after a solid 2019 at Bowling Green.
“It’s really cool to be around a lot of the older, higher-level players and be able to learn from them,” Baz said.
“The biggest thing is just being a sponge down here and learning as much as I can. That kind of stuff (like roster moves) isn’t really in my control, so I try not to think about it all.
“I’m really working on putting my pitches where I want, and I’ve worked really diligently making my delivery consistent, and I feel really good.”
That seemed obvious as he worked an impressive 1-2-3-4 inning on Sunday.
Baz retired Michael Perez on a fly to deep right on a first-pitch fastball, which got Baz to turn up the heat a bit. He got Yandy Diaz on a called third strike, Hunter Renfroe on a fly to right, then, after asking if he could face another hitter, he got Mike Brosseau on a groundout.
“Just really, really effortless,” Cash said. “You look at him out there, he’s a big kid (6 feet 3, 190 pounds), but he’s really put together. The delivery is so clean, then, whack, the ball is on top of you really, really quick.”
The upper-90s fastball with late movement is Baz’s best weapon, especially at the top of the zone, with his curveball and slider still under development.
“I’ve heard a lot about him, and I was excited to get behind the dish and catch him,” Zunino said. “He’s got a lot of potential. … If he can continue to mix that (pitch assortment) up, just another power arm that in a condition like this could help us a lot sooner than we would think.”
Plus, McClanahan said there has been a “night and day” change in Baz’s maturity since they first met in 2018.
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