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Why Jacob Waguespack feels he is ‘where you want to be’ with Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE — Jacob Waguespack had learned some stuff along the way.

Working his way over four years from an undrafted, “average” college reliever who got $25,000 to sign with the Phillies in June 2015 to starting games in the big leagues for the Blue Jays.

Understanding the numbers games when a solid 2021 season at Triple-A Buffalo wasn’t rewarded with a call-up. Opting for the financial security of guaranteed contracts in Japan the past two seasons.

Accepting a frequent change in roles, and the physical and mental adjustments required, based on his teams’ evolving needs rather than his preferences.

And deciding it was time to return for another shot at the majors, which he seems in line for with the Rays, competing for one of the final spots on the staff.

But as Waguespack headed to his Louisiana home in November after wrapping up his second season with Orix, the 30-year-old right-hander felt lhe needed to really figure some things out.

“Now’s the time to try and get it,” he said. “And that’s what we did.”

The first thing Waguespack did was commit to an extensive two-month program at Tread Athletics, a metrics-driven performance facility in Charlotte that addresses not only mechanics but also mobility and mental aspects of pitching.

“Brought my wife and dog and loaded the car up,’’ he said. “I was there every single day. Last year was a bit of an eh year, and I had some things that I needed to iron out.”

Next was getting the opportunity to sign, albeit a minor-league deal, with the Rays, having long admired the work pitching coach Kyle Snyder and his staff did in making others better and wanting to see how they could help him.

“(They) have been absolutely amazing already,” Waguespack said. “That was a huge factor in me coming here. I mean, this is where you want to be if you’re a pitcher, especially in my position, trying to get some things to all fall together.”

At Tread, Waguespack worked closely with Tyler Zombro, the former Rays minor-leaguer who does extensive offseason training. (Zombro is most known for being hit in the head by a line drive at Triple-A Durham in June 2021 and his valiant comeback less than a year later. He currently is in minor-league camp with Texas.)

They addressed things like spine mobility to smooth out the mechanics of Waguespack’s delivery (with a 6-foot-6 frame “my arm slot is obviously touching the sky”) to amping up the intensity of his workouts, starting with playing catch.

“He pushed me in ways that I haven’t been pushed before, mostly mentally, but physically, too,” Waguespack said. “Plus, you’re with big leaguers and you’re around a bunch of guys there. So, my training intensity was higher, and I think that’s helped.”

Waguespack said even his initial interactions with Snyder and the rest of the staff, such as bullpen coach Jorge Moncada, strategist Bobby Kinne and director of pitching Winston Doom, were remarkably beneficial.

“All those guys are just wizards,” Waguespack said. “My first bullpen, we adjusted a couple things. That’s been great for me from a confidence aspect, them just telling us what works for us and is good for us. That’s been a breath of fresh air.”

Waguespack also came not only to accept that he will be used in different roles (starter, long reliever, set-up, closer) and learn how to prepare physically, but to appreciate that in the current game the flexibility makes him more attractive to teams.

“I’ve done it,” Waguespack said. “I’ve been the hybrid guy for literally three or four years. So, I get it.”

And he has learned to adjust to it.

“Mentally, I think it’s just more so trying to buy in, but also looking out for yourself at the same time,” he said. “Obviously, I’m cool with either role. At a younger age, I didn’t realize the value in that. But now I kind of see there is value in being able to do multiple things. … I treat it as something that’s in my playbook and something that I can use as a resource for myself.”

Plus, he’s used to having to prove himself in doing whatever is needed.

“I wasn’t a big prospect,” he said. “I’ve always had to grind it out at each level. So. I’ve had that mindset.”

The Rays were impressed enough — especially with a slight uptick in fastball velocity to the mid-90s — to add Waguespack to their 40-man roster last week, keeping him from potentially exercising an out clause. He is among the final candidates (along with Tyler Alexander and maybe a couple of others) to either replace injured Taj Bradley in the rotation or get a long relief spot, though he also could open the season at Triple A.

“He’s really savvy,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s been there, done that. He had kind of the ups and downs with Toronto. He goes over and pitches in Japan, and I think found his way a little bit.

“What I’ve found is a lot of guys that go over there, they come back with a lot of knowledge. He’s been so receptive this spring. I don’t think anybody said, ‘Hey, throw it harder,’ and it just happened. But when you throw harder, your other pitches kind of start working a little bit better.”

The result is that Waguespack, who has a career 5-5 record and 5.08 ERA in 27 big-league outings, may be reaching the top of his game.

“He’s more polished,” said catcher Rob Brantly, who played against him for years. “This is the best he’s ever looked. It’s cool to see a guy continue to get better. It’s a testament to the person.”

And being willing to get after it.

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