ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The All-Star break has finally arrived, and despite dealing with dozens of injuries all year, the Tampa Bay Rays are still at the top of the wild-card standings in the American League.
Managing the roster has been a major challenge the first three-plus months, and there is going to be plenty more decisions to make as we head down the home stretch.
For Peter Bendix, who’s in his first year as the Rays’ senior vice president of baseball Operations and general manager after 14 years in the organization, there’s still a lot of work to be done for his 50-41 team heading into Sunday’s game with the Baltimore Orioles, the last one before a four-day break.
He sat down with InsideTheRays.com publisher Tom Brew this week to discuss the state of the team, the challenges that lie ahead, especially in relying on so many young players, and he also discussed All-Star Shane McClanahan and what he’s liked and disliked about the first half of the season.
Here’s is our full interview from this week at Tropicana Field:
— on dealing with massive roster changes this week
“It’s like a line change. All the injuries, it certainly makes things more difficult. When you’ve got five of your Opening Day position players out, you hope they aren’t out long, but that’s baseball and it does happen when you play 162 games. Guys get hurt, and every team deals with it. We pride ourselves on the depth that we have and we know we have a lot of very capable players who aren’t every day players at the beginning of the season, and some of those young guys, they’ve struggled at times.
“That’s part of the process with young players. They don’t always hit the ground running. A lot of guys who are really good in the big leagues, they didn’t start off really strong, either. But we know that we use that next-man-up mentality, and they are going to get the chance to show what they can do.”
— on recent moves a reaction to poor performance
In the past week, Bendix made his first midseason moves, picking up infielder Yu Chang from the Pittsburgh Pirates and catcher Christian Bethancourt in a trade with the Oakland A’s. Those moves were made in part because young infielder Vidal Brujan (.167 average) and catcher Rene Pinto (.204) were struggling at the big-league level. I asked him of the struggles of Brujan and Pinto had something to do with making moves.
“Yeah, I think so. We’re always going to be on the lookout for players we like that can help us. When we have players that are struggling, the bar might be a little bit different on who we might want to bring in to acquire. A lot of this though is who is available that we like that can be an upgrade on what we have right now.
“With some of the young guys who are struggling, if there’s an opportunity to send them back to Triple-A and let them kind of catch their breath and regroup a little bit, that helps. We know they’re going to be a big part of the future, but sometimes they might benefit from some time back in Triple-A.”
— on Josh Lowe’s growth, and remaining patient with him
“That helped Josh Lowe a lot, going back down and hitting the re-set button, and when we brought Josh back up, he is now getting invaluable experience by playing in meaningful games.
“Look at last year with Shane McClanahan, and getting that experience of playing in playoff games at a place like Fenway Park. That has fueled what he has done this year, or at least been a very big part of it. The struggles that come in the big leagues, they really do make you better. The question is, at what point do they flip the switch and start being more productive at this level too? You have to be patient with them. We’ll be patient with Josh because we all believe he has a lot of potential and he’s going to be a very good player for us for a long time.”
— on Isaac Paredes turning the corner
“When you look at his performance in the big leagues prior to coming to us, he struggled. Young players struggle. But I think he’s exciting because he’s showing a rare ability to really drive the ball to the pull side when he’s ahead in the count, and then when he’s got two strikes and needs to battle, he can battle as good as anybody and take what’s given to him.”
Bendix was asked about learning from someone like Yandy Diaz, who is one of the best opposite-field hitters in the game.
“(Yandy) is a pretty good person to model your game after.”
— On improving the shortstop position with Wander Franco out
“Potentially, but it depends what’s out there. We’re always looking to upgrade every position, and things change when Wander is not out going there, but Taylor Walls is a great defender and he’s definitely a big part of our future. I know the results offensively haven’t been there, but I do think we are seeing some progress there. Absolutely, I have faith that he can be a better major-league hitter.”
Walls has been better since Franco went down. He is 6-for-15 — a .400 average — in his last five games, and has been spectacular every night defensively.
— on the impact of extra wild card spot
“It’s three games instead of one game now, so I guess there’s one extra game that you can lose. But I don’t think it changes things much for us. We saw last year if there’s somebody out that can help us, we’re going to go pay the price to do that. We did that last year with Nelson Cruz, and it worked out, for the most part.
Scroll to Continue
“We’re going to make this team be as good as we possibly can right now, and also for as long as we possibly can.
— on organization depth being pressed into duty
“The depth that you’re talking about is the depth that we’re using right now. We’ve got 15 guys on the IL, so the only way we have a chance to make the playoffs is to utilize that depth. You see how it important it is. You don’t necessarily want to trade out of it, because you need it. We’re needing it right now.
— on Shane McClanahan’s rise to All-Star
Shane McClanahan, a first-round pick out of South Florida four years ago, is now the ace of the Rays’ staff. He is 10-3 this season with a 1.71 earned run average and he was just selected to his first All-Star game.
Bendix talked about his growth.
“I think when you’re drafting a pitcher with the kind of stuff he had in college, you hope for that. The upside is the term that you’re looking for, that this guy is a top-of-the-line pitcher with All-Star potential or whatever. “It’s always hard to bet on any one individual. The fact that Shane has refined his abilities the way he has, that’s great.
“Now he’s got four plus pitches, and he has fantastic command over all of them and his demeanor on the mound, his mound presence, is fantastic. That is such a testament to our entire pitching development system, but it’s a testament to Shane as well for how hard he’s worked to be better. He’s so on top of his game and on top of all of the elements of it. Right now, it’s tremendously impressive”
— on veteran starter Corey Kluber’s presence
“Guys who’ve been around the block and had success — and even the guys who have had some difficult times too — those are the guys who have had the most lived knowledge and experience. It’s a testament to Corey that he’s willing to share his experience. It’s a tremendous positive.”
— on the excitement of wild-card race
For the first time this season, there will be six teams in the playoffs in each league instead of five. The first-round games are now best two-of-three. Right now, there are seven teams with 3.5 games of each other for the three spots, with the Rays at the top. (The New York Yankees lead the Rays by 13 games in the AL East race.)
“Every game matters, and to me that’s what is really special about baseball. Sure, we play 162 games, but so many times it comes down to one game. Teams miss out by one game so many times, and we know that better than anyone. It’s going to be a very fun race.
“From our perspective, it’s tremendously stressful, but it’s stressful for all the good reasons, because there’s something there to achieve. That’s the fun part of it.”
— on the one thing he is happiest about
“The way our pitching, especially our starting pitching, has settled in after a really. tough start to the season, with a shortened spring training and some early injuries, that’s been really impressive.
“To look at our rotation, we have perfectly capable guys who could be in our rotation but they aren’t because there’s no room. We’ve been getting good starting pitching from one through five, and we’re playing a lot of close games because our starters have kept us in game. It’s really nice to see that. It’s impressive, but I guess it isn’t all that surprising because we’ve been winning that way for 10 years or so now.
— on the one thing he’s most disappointed in
“Maybe the most frustrating thing has been the defense, and the decision-making (on the basepaths), the things we pride ourselves on. It’s young players just trying to be good, and that’s part of the learning process. Hopefully they take the right lessons from that and get better moving forward.”
— on starter Jeffrey Springs taking a little break
One of the best things the Rays have done all season is move Jeffrey Springs into the starting rotation. He’s on the injured list right now with a minor calf injury, and the Rays are being careful because he’s already pitched 64 innings. The long-time reliever has never pitched more than 44 innings at the big-league level.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world. We’re just being extra cautious. When you have somebody like him, even if it’s just a minor ailment, to give him some rest is a good thing. You don’t want to take any risks.”
— on adapting to his new role in the front office
”I think it’s working out great. It’s not radically different from what I was doing before, just kind of an expansion of my roles, so I was more comfortable going into it, as opposed to something that was very, very different
“It seems like it’s working fine, and I’m just trying to get an understanding of what I need to do to be successful on a day-to-day basis. There’s no other way to learn it, and Eric (Neander) is a wonderful mentor in that sense. He’s been doing this for a while, and Cash has been doing this for a while, so it all works well. I’ve been working with Eric since 2009. ”