How Richie Palacios worked his way into becoming a force in Rays’ lineup

MILWAUKEE — Joshua Palacios gets why some people around the game — even within the Tampa Bay organization — are surprised by the success his younger brother, Richie, has been having.

A bright spot in a dim opening month for the Rays, Richie Palacios entered play Tuesday leading the team with an .892 OPS, ranking second with a .297 average and three home runs, and as clearly one of their most valuable players.

Joshua, an outfielder in the Pirates system currently sidelined in Triple A with a knee injury, has been catching as many of Richie’s games as he can on TV and the internet.

“It’s been absolutely amazing,” Joshua said Tuesday. “I would say surprising, but I’m not very surprised. I saw all the work that he put in this offseason, the adjustments that he made and the sacrifices and dedication that he had to the game.

“So I was kind of expecting this in a sense. But I’m just glad that he’s got an opportunity to show what he’s always been capable of and the work that he’s put in.”

The Rays, known for the thoroughness of their pro scouting staff, had a pretty good idea of the kind of player Palacios was when they made the January trade to get him from St. Louis. (Plus they’d done well in getting outfielders from the Cardinals in previous deals for Tommy Pham and Randy Arozarena.)

The Rays needed another lefty-swinging outfielder after dealing Luke Raley to Seattle to get shortstop Jose Caballero to fill the void left by Wander Franco’s legal issues and Taylor Walls’ hip surgery.

They liked the versatility Palacios provided in playing all three outfield spots, along with second base (which he will start doing some when outfielder Josh Lowe returns from injury). They saw his speed on the bases. They appreciated the energy he brought to the dugout and field.

But what they didn’t fully know was how much Palacios had done — and how much he had improved — through an offseason of diligent work at the Exos physical and Driveline skills training facilities near his Arizona home.

“He got after it at Exos and put on some weight, got stronger, got faster, got a little more twitchy,” Joshua said. “And he went to Driveline and broke down a whole bunch of things on his swing and how he could make it more effective and how he could make it more powerful.

“I was really proud of him and his focus and his attention to detail this offseason. And I think we’re just watching him reap the benefits of that.”

The Rays are, too, as Palacios, 26, has emerged as a vital piece of their lineup that is missing three other lefty hitters (Josh Lowe, Brandon Lowe, Jonathan Aranda).

He has started 12 of their last 17 games, including six in which he batted third in the order. He had highlights including a home run at Yankee Stadium (where he watched games as a kid) and reaching base in six plate appearances Saturday in Chicago.

“We saw a very versatile player,” said Kevin Ibach, the vice president/assistant general manager who oversees player personnel. “Like we often do in trades, we try to acquire guys that can help us in a lot of different ways.

“So we liked the left-handed bat, we liked the ability to play different positions. But I think to the extent that what he’s done offensively to this point in the season is a surprise to us. And I think it’s a testament to the work that he’s put in.”

Cardinals baseball operations president John Mozeliak said in spring training they knew what they were giving up, but they had a need for a veteran reliever in swapping Palacios for Andrew Kittredge (who has been good, too, with a 0.75 ERA in 13 appearances).

“He’s very athletic, young and can play multiple positions,’’ Mozeliak said. “(The Rays) will like him, he brings a lot of energy. From a manager’s perspective, there’s a lot of flexibility, and that’s usually a pretty good tool.”

Mozeliak said Palacios has “deceiving” power.

One of Palacios’ main goals was to make that clearer.

Having played parts of two seasons in the majors, in 2022 with Cleveland, which made him a third-round pick in 2018; and in 2023 with St. Louis, which acquired him that June after he opened the season at Triple A and was designated for assignment by the Guardians; he felt he had to do something to improve.

Palacios went to the main Driveline facility in Seattle for an initial assessment, forming a plan to improve his bat speed and keep the bat in the hitting zone longer. Then he went back to Arizona to work diligently at getting better.

“I definitely feel more powerful with the swing,” Palacios said. “Those are the two things that were the major focus. The bat speed, because that was the lowest-hanging fruit from what we looked at. And then just having the bat stay in the zone for as long as possible, which just gives you room for error.”

Though he isn’t hitting the ball harder than before, the payoff has been hitting it more squarely, and more on a line than on the ground, than before.

The increase in Palacios’ production has been clear. Joshua — who soon hopes to see for himself at Tropicana Field when he starts rehab games at the Pirates’ facility in Bradenton — said it’s “a tricky question” whether it’s due more to the improvements his brother made or the opportunity to play more.

Richie said it’s probably a combination, plus the help he has gotten from hitting coach Chad Mottola and assistant Brady North.

“It’s everything, for sure,” Richie said.

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