Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Inside the Rays’ old-school/new-wave pitching plan for a five-day rotation

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays' preferred plan for handling their suddenly thinning starting staff — which manager Kevin Cash inadvertently revealed Wednesday — is a little tricky to describe. And even harder to assess.

It sounds a little old school, a little innovative and a lot of Rays being Rays, trying to outsmart the rest of the class.

It is certainly not a now-normal five-man rotation. Nor is it really a true back-in-the-day four-man.

Maybe it's best to call it a hybrid. Or a five-day rotation.

In simplest form, the Rays plan to use four starters in standard order, and on normal rest, and when they do need a fifth, to pick from the group of multi-inning relievers they will have in the bullpen.

Cash had said going into camp they planned to do it that way through the first six weeks of the season, noting that having eight open dates in a 38-day stretch otherwise would be disruptive to the schedules of all five starters

But the secret he apparently had been keeping is they were actually planning — even before trading Jake Odorizzi and losing Brent Honeywell and now Jose De Leon for the year due to injury— to roll that way the whole season.

"We're going to try to stay at four," Cash said. "We're going to have some 'bullpen day' in there. We're going to try and do that for a long period of time. We're going to learn a lot in the first six weeks."

The Rays, of course, have their reasons. And, of course, they are a bit convoluted.

First, it's not that they don't have anyone to be a fifth starter, but rather they have several candidates — though none they necessarily are confident can get them regularly deep into games.

So rather than designate a No. 5, and use him — at most — once every five days, they would rather add that arm to the pool of multi-inning relievers in their eight-man pen. That way, they have the potential to use him two or three times in that five-day stretch. And when that fifth day comes up, they'll use whichever two or three relievers are available or call up a fresh arm, to cover the "start."

Second, that having a "bullpen day" can be an advantage, allowing them to use pitchers who present different looks and have shown to be more effective when only going through the opposing order once or twice, which is now a core part of their philosophy.

In short, the Rays view this as playing to their strengths.

"It's a reflection of who we have available," Cash said. "We feel like we have a lot of good young pitchers, and we want to get them all their reps and not limit somebody."

With De Leon now following Honeywell to Tommy John surgery, and Odorizzi in Minnesota, that group has been somewhat depleted.

The four starters remain set: Chris Archer, Blake Snell, Jake Faria and Nathan Eovaldi, who is coming off a second Tommy John surgery himself and will need some special handling as it is.

The pool of multi-inning relievers initially will include veteran Matt Andriese; Austin Pruitt and Andrew Kittredge, who made their debuts last season; and prospects such as Anthony Banda, Yonny Chirinos, Chih-Wei Hu, Hunter Wood and Ryan Yarbrough.

"We have a lot of young, talented arms down there, guys who are ready to go," Eovaldi said. "And we've got a lot of guys that can go multiple innings as well. It's going to be a unique situation, but I think it will be able to work out."

Can it really work?

Hmm. It's going to take a tremendous amount of time and effort in the coordination, with a red flag warning of overuse, and some good fortune after what has been a horrible spring.

Besides having the four starters stay healthy, the team's going to need a few breaks, with a couple of these young arms handling the conversion to the new role — physically and mentally — well.

Cash said the remaining three weeks of spring will be critical in determining which of the relief candidates can be best counted on, specifically in how quickly they can bounce back. And how it works over the first six weeks — when they will need that "fifth starter" four times — also will be telling.

Are the Rays on to something that could change the game?

"Only if it works," Cash laughed. "If it doesn't, it's dumb."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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