Monday, June 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Chief Rays' concern? There's no relief

PORT CHARLOTTE

Rays officials were predictably optimistic Thursday in talking about their chances to return to playoff contention this season.

Having an elite rotation stacked with high quality and healthy arms, and a lineup they're convinced has been made more powerful and productive without sacrificing any defense, can do that.

Even make them a little giddy.

Asked about the stats-oriented Baseball Prospectus site that counters more common opinion by projecting the Rays to win 91 games and the American League East title, manager Kevin Cash quipped, "I think it's a great computer."

"We should buy one," added baseball operations president Matt Silverman.

But for all the reasons the Rays have to be confident with spring training opening this weekend, there is also cause for concern. Specifically a bullpen that had issues with usage and inconsistent performance last year and now has to replace veteran Jake McGee as well, making it potentially the biggest problem in their way.

"There's going to be competition in that bullpen, Silverman acknowledged: "We can't replace Jake McGee's performance and productivity, but we feel like we have a lot of good arms who will compete. We'll see how it shakes out this spring and throughout the year."

One step the Rays took was finalizing a one-year, $1 million plus incentives deal with Clearwater product Ryan Webb, giving them another veteran and the ground ball specialist and double-play inducer they have lacked. "A nice element to have," Silverman said.

Another is more of a strategic change, with plans to use relievers in front of closer Brad Boxberger to work in more than one inning and, at times, to get more than three outs.

Though not as unconventional, or as controversial, as last year's plan to lift their lesser experienced starters after two times through the batting order, it is a different approach nonetheless.

The Rays are always looking for new frontiers to explore and inefficiencies to exploit, and this seems to be next.

There are benefits to doing things differently, such as getting more out of a reliever who is doing well rather than automatically lifting him just because he did his job and ended the inning, and using fewer pitchers on a nightly basis to maintain overall depth over a multiple-night front.

But there are potential concerns too, topped by the increase in workload on each pitcher individually and residually on the staff in totality.

Cash said they will experiment in exhibition games to see how it works. Alex Colome, Xavier Cedeno, Enny Romero, Danny Farquhar and Andrew Bellatti would seem to all be candidates for extended duty, as Cash suggested they could use this group approach rather than having a set set-up man.

"That's something we're going to have to find out in spring training — how those guys can do it," Cash said. "Can they bounce back? Are they able to come in after one-third of an inning and sit for 15 minutes while we're scoring runs and go back out? We're going to have to figure that out with some guys. Because the way we were stacked up last year, it was a lot of one-inning guys."

With veterans Matt Moore and Drew Smyly healthy and expected to be in the rotation all year, along with Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Erasmo Ramirez (at least until Alex Cobb returns in late July), the Rays will have a deeper, more experienced set of starters and shouldn't have to go to the pen as early, or as often.

But, noting the void left by trading McGee to the Rockies for Corey Dickerson, one of the key new bats, Silverman talked about the new plan as a way to increase flexibility and maximize their options in what will be a relatively inexperienced bullpen. (At least unless they add another veteran arm or two.)

"It would be great if our starter goes seven innings, hand it off to our reliever in the eighth, close it out in the ninth and win a ball game," Silverman said. "And if that happens, fantastic.

"But we want to make sure we have contingencies where we don't have issues covering innings if there is an injury to a starter, if a guy doesn't go very deep, we want to make sure we have the length to be able to have a fresh pen the next day and not have it affect our club that day and for a couple of games down the road."

The Rays are known for seeking creative solutions, and this could be another. Or it could be a big reason the bullpen blows up and the season is a bust.

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

     
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