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Mar 27, 2024 4:35 am

Rays open with Jays, begin life without Wander Franco

Zach Eflin

The Tampa Bay Rays will open the season Thursday with a new shortstop and Opening Day starting pitcher when they host the Toronto Blue Jays in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The saga of arrested star shortstop Wander Franco, 23, is likely to take another turn with the club expected to remove him from the roster for an alleged relationship with a 14-year-old girl in the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican legal system and MLB continue to investigate Franco, who didn’t attend spring training. Franco was an All-Star last year, when he batted .281, hit 17 homers and stole 30 bases.

The team shored up the crucial position by signing free agent Amed Rosario and acquiring Jose Caballero in a trade with the Seattle Mariners.

As for the Opening Day hurler, manager Kevin Cash had a no-brainer option with last year’s two hard-throwers either out with an injury (Shane McClanahan) or playing for another club (Tyler Glasnow, traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers).

Instead, Cash will call on reliable Zach Eflin, who emerged as the staff’s top arm in his first campaign with Tampa Bay in 2023.

After Jeffrey Springs lasted just 16 innings before needing Tommy John surgery and Drew Rasmussen and McClanahan later went down for the season with elbow injuries as well, Eflin tied for the American League lead in wins. He went 16-8 with a 3.50 ERA and anchored a group destined for the playoffs after starting 13-0.

Tampa Bay went 99-63, finishing two games behind the American League East champion Baltimore Orioles.

With his first Opening Day start, Eflin will be the 16th different pitcher to start the first game as the Rays begin their 27th season.

“Some things you really don’t think are ever going to happen,” Eflin said of the nod. “I always kind of felt buried in the (Philadelphia Phillies’) staff, and I pitched to that, and that was on me. But I also understand that this probably doesn’t happen without some injuries and people that we’ve lost.”

In five career outings (four starts) against Toronto, Eflin is 2-2 with a 5.64 ERA, having surrendered four homers in 22 1/3 innings.

The Blue Jays, following their spring training game in Clearwater, Fla., on Sunday, finalized their roster by adding Daniel Vogelbach, Ernie Clement and Davis Schneider.

Manager John Schneider said he was striving to balance his offense, which has added Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Justin Turner.

“You’re looking to stay as balanced as you can,” Schneider said. “And you’re looking at how we’re going to roll out most of our everyday guys and how they fit into our equation, what kind of pitches they typically handle.”

Alejandro Kirk likely will get the bulk of the action at catcher after Danny Jansen sustained a broken bone in his right wrist when he was hit by a pitch during a March 13 Grapefruit League game.

Brian Serven, acquired by Toronto off waivers from the Chicago Cubs, is another option behind the plate.

Toronto right-hander Jose Berrios, who went 11-12 with a 3.65 ERA last season, will oppose Eflin to begin the four-game series.

A two-time All-Star, Berrios teamed with Chris Bassitt, Kevin Gausman and Yusei Kikuchi to form a solid foursome in the rotation — each making 30-plus starts — as the Blue Jays finished third in the division at 89-73. Like the Rays, the Blue Jays were swept in a wild-card series last year.

In 10 career starts against the Rays, Berrios is 3-4 with a 4.91 ERA. Last year, however, he was sharp vs. Tampa Bay, going 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA in two starts.

In 2023, Tampa Bay won seven of the teams’ 13 matchups, including two of three games in the final weekend of the regular season at Toronto.

–Field Level Media

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