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Tampa Bay Rays catchers using wristbands amid rotation experiment

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PORT CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Major League Baseball made game-calling more difficult for catchers this winter when it changed the rules governing mound visits. For backstops with the Tampa Bay Rays, things got even trickier when the club announced plans for a four-man rotation to open the season.

Pitching coach Kyle Snyder had an idea to help, and catchers Wilson Ramos and Jesus Sucre were eager to hop onboard — quarterback-style wristbands loaded with information designed to help with pitch calling.

The Rays are joining the Indians, Mets and some others as teams arming their catchers with data-filled forearm sleeves. Tampa Bay hasn’t decided precisely what will be on the wristbands, though it will mostly include information on signs and strategies for attacking opposing hitters. The cards will have a flap to make sure opponents and cameras can’t catch what’s been written down.

“If you have all that on the wristband, it’s going to be a lot easier for you,” Sucre said.

Catchers like David Ross, Evan Gattis and Yasmani Grandal have used the wristbands to manage information in baseball’s big data era, but Rays manager and former catcher Kevin Cash downplayed the effect of that information on pitch calling.

The Rays’ wristbands are primarily a response to a rule change limiting mound visits to six per game, a shift that makes the already complicated task of relaying pitch calls all the more challenging. Catchers can be barred from going to the mound if a team has exhausted its allotment, and they’re not thrilled with the change — Martin Maldonado (Angels) and Willson Contreras (Cubs) have said they’d rather pay fines than limit their visits.

Teams use intricate sets of signs to disguise pitch selection when a potentially nosey baserunner is on second, and not every pitcher employs the same systems. The Rays used 30 pitchers last season, and each of them had at least two sets of signs for use with runners on base. There’s some overlap, but it’s still a lot for catchers to memorize — a major impetus for all the mound visits.

“I know there’s a lot of pride that catchers take in their game-calling abilities,” Cash said. “We’re not looking to take that away from our two guys because we feel they both do a good job retaining information before a series. But nice little quick reminders don’t hurt anybody.”

Cash thinks the most drastic change for catchers is in the number of pitchers.

Tampa Bay could use even more pitchers this year thanks to a strategy shift with starters. The team plans to use a four-man rotation while relying on the bullpen to cover games that would have gone to a fifth starter. That means the Rays will intentionally use six or seven pitchers in some games.

“It’s kind of hard to go inning to inning to inning with a different guy,” Sucre said. “You have to work hard.”

As more teams try to limit the number of times starting pitchers face an opposing order, such games could become more common around the majors. Plus with last year’s shift to a 10-day disabled list, there’s more shuttling of arms between Triple-A and the majors, broadening the pool of pitchers that catchers will work with over the course of a season. Teams used a record 755 pitchers last season, compared to 666 in 2007 and 534 in 1997.

“There’s just more bodies you’re thinking about,” Cash said, adding “I think it’s going to be beneficial to have what our pitchers’ best strengths are when attacking hitters. Quick little reminder for him to look at.”

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Los Angeles Dodgers bring Walker Buehler off IL as playoffs approach

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The Los Angeles Dodgers activated Walker Buehler, who has been dealing with a blister on his right index finger for about a month, off the injured list Thursday for one final tuneup start before the postseason.

Buehler, 26, was placed on the IL because of that blister for the second time in two weeks on Sept. 10, but the right-hander threw a six-inning, 90-pitch simulated game at Dodger Stadium on Saturday, throwing the first 75 pitches with his finger uncovered.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he would be monitoring Buehler “pretty closely” in his return against the Oakland Athletics and that the primary objective is to ensure he doesn’t suffer a setback. Buehler recently sought advice from former Dodgers starter Rich Hill, who has dealt with blisters throughout his career.

“Walker feels really good, confident, the finger itself in a good place,” Roberts said. “It’s just up to all of us to make sure we just manage it tonight. He wouldn’t be making this start if we didn’t feel good as far as him taking on a regular start.”

The Dodgers are still ironing out most of their pitching plans for the best-of-three wild-card series that begins at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, partly because the team might not learn its opponent until the end of the week.

Buehler and Clayton Kershaw are expected to start the first two games, but the Dodgers have yet to determine the order. A potential Game 3 could see the Dodgers deploy an opener, with the traditional No. 3 starter — either Julio Urias, Dustin May or Tony Gonsolin — pitching bulk innings later in the game.

Buehler wasn’t properly stretched out when Major League Baseball restarted and has logged only 32⅔ innings heading into his final regular-season start, posting a 3.86 ERA with 36 strikeouts and 10 walks. Most of his recent work has come in controlled environments.

“He’s still pitched and understood what’s at stake in these sim games, and I expect him to be sharp,” Roberts said. “You’re one start away from the postseason, so I expect him to be sharp and ready to go.”

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Chicago Cubs planning for reduced capacity at Wrigley Field to start 2021 MLB season

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The Chicago Cubs laid off about 25% of their business staff on Thursday because of a loss in revenue and in anticipation of an uncertain 2021, sources familiar with the situation told ESPN.

The move follows a significant round of cuts on the baseball side in August.

Based on advice from medical experts, as well as restrictions because of local ordinances, the Cubs are not expecting full capacity inside Wrigley Field at the beginning of next season.

It’s possible only season-ticket holders will be allowed to attend games. They’ll get first priority as they make up about 50% of overall ticket holders, which is about the same capacity the team is expecting to allow inside the stadium.

The Cubs expect to miss out on about 75% of their revenue in 2020, according to sources, because of the COVID-19 outbreak that has limited the season to 60 games, without fans in the stands. That could add up to a $125 million to $140 million loss.

Uncertainty in the next collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players also is contributing to the overall financial picture of the Cubs, according to sources.

“This is through no fault of their own and had nothing to do with their performance, talent or contributions,” a team source said when asked by ESPN about the lost jobs. “This was a difficult decision but the goal was to restructure the organization based on the current operating environment with losses of more than $100 million anticipated next year. We’re no longer a business that welcomes 3.3 million fans and we’re not sure when that business will resume.”

The team is hopeful to get back to full capacity at Wrigley Field later in the 2021 season, but with no guarantee from medical experts about when there might be a vaccine, the team is preparing for reduced capacity for as long as necessary.

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Braves ace Max Fried (ankle) expected back for Game 1 of playoffs

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Braves ace Max Fried is expected to be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs after leaving his start Wednesday with an ankle injury.

Braves manager Brian Snitker said Fried is sore but additional tests on the ankle were negative.

Fried was making his final regular-season start for the NL East champions and hoping to boost his Cy Young Award credentials before starting Game 1 of his team’s first-round series. He lasted only one inning against the Marlins, tweaking an ankle while fielding a bunt down the third-base line by Starling Marte.

Although Fried didn’t appear to be hurt on the bunt, he wasn’t the same pitcher after the play.

Having gone the entire season without allowing a homer, covering 55⅔ innings, Fried suddenly gave up two in a row. Jesus Aguilar hit one off the facade of the second deck, Brian Anderson drove one into the empty center-field seats, and Garrett Cooper nearly made it three in a row with a double off the wall.

“Obviously, it bit him a little bit,” Snitker said after the game. “I’m sure it was on his mind, too.”

The left-hander got the third out, then sat solemnly in the dugout while talking to Snitker and getting an apparent pep talk from teammate Freddie Freeman. Although the decision to remove Fried was described as precautionary, it created more uncertainty for the Braves, who have struggled all season to find three consistent starters to go with Fried.

Atlanta bounced back with three runs in the bottom of the first to beat the Marlins 9-4 and ensure that Fried wouldn’t take his first loss. He finished the regular season 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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