On the night before his big league debut, Blue Jays’ pitcher Chris Rowley tried to wrap his head around the milestone he was about to set. “It’s something that I’m not sure I really understand the magnitude of,” he told reporters Friday. “I’m not sure I ever will, but it’s something I’m trying to digest a little bit. It’s something I’ve tried to appreciate, but at the same time I have a job to do.” The 26-year-old right-hander became the first West Point graduate to pitch in Major League Baseball when he stepped on the mound during Saturday’s game against the Pirates.
Prior to the start of the 2016 season, Rowley had only pitched 32 2/3 innings at any professional level. He served a two-year commitment to the U.S. Army in 2014 and 2015 and was eligible for early release before returning to a career in pro ball, though he’s still technically on individual ready reserve. His stuff impressed in High-A Dunedin, where he issued a 3.49 ERA, 2.2 BB/9 and 6.3 SO/9 over 123 2/3 innings in 2016. In 2017, he quickly ascended the rungs of Toronto’s minor league system, earning a combined 6-6 record and 2.29 ERA in back-to-back gigs with Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo.
When fellow Toronto right-hander Cesar Valdez hit the 10-day disabled list with right shoulder impingement, the latest in a long line of injuries to befall the Blue Jays’ rotation, Rowley got the call he had been waiting for. He stepped into his role with ease on Saturday afternoon, striking out three batters and allowing five hits, a walk and a run over 5 1/3 solid innings against the Pirates.
Backed by a seven-run outpouring from the Blue Jays, Rowley not only made a favorable impression on his new team, but notched his first Major League win, too. He was excused in the sixth inning after working into a jam, and walked off the field to a standing ovation from the 46,179 fans in attendance at Rogers Centre.
“This is the dream,” said Rowley. “That was a really special moment, and I wanted to make sure that I took it in. I didn’t want to just put my head down and go into the dugout, I wanted to make sure that I enjoyed it.”
On Sunday, we heard from former Ray and current Giants third baseman Evan Longoria. The Rays recently traded pitcher Jake Odorizzi to the Twins for a prospect and designated All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense outside of a cost-cutting perspective. Longoria said, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”
Today, we’re hearing from a current Ray: center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who is set to enter his fifth full season with the club. Via Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, Kiermaier said, “I am 100 percent frustrated and very upset with the moves. No beating around the bush. It’s one of those things that makes you scratch your head, you don’t know the reasoning why. And then you see the team’s explanation and still it’s just like, okay, well, so be it.”
Longoria — formerly the face of the franchise — was traded to the Giants in December and the Rays continued to subtract with their recent moves involving Odorizzi and Dickerson. Odorizzi has a career 3.83 ERA in what has been a solid, if unspectacular, career. Dickerson put up an All-Star season, posting an .815 OPS with 27 home runs in 150 games. Moving either player was not done to fix a positional log jam. In fact, with Odorizzi out of the picture, the Rays are planning to use a four-man starting rotation for the first six-plus weeks of the season, Topkin reported on Sunday. Dickerson’s ouster simply opens the door for Mallex Smith, who posted a .684 OPS last year, to start every day in the outfield.
The Rays got markedly worse after going 80-82 last season. They saved a few million bucks jettisoning Odorizzi and Dickerson. And Rays ownership still wants the public to foot most of the bill for their new stadium.
When it was just one small market team pinching pennies, it was fine. But now that more than half of the league has adopted penny-pinching principles popularized by Moneyball and Sabermetrics (with the Rays among the chief offenders), the game of baseball has become markedly less fan- and player-friendly. This offseason has been less about players signing contracts and changing teams in trades — which helps build excitement and intrigue for the coming year — and more about front offices doing math problems concerning the $197 million competitive balance tax threshold and other self-imposed monetary restraints. Fun. Kiermaier is right to be upset and he’s very likely not alone in feeling that way.