PORT CHARLOTTE — Bumping Erasmo Ramirez to the bullpen to make more use of their top four starters was going to be an appealing option for the Rays given their abundance of April and early May off days anyway.
But with closer Brad Boxberger now sidelined into at least mid May, the Rays saw the move, made official Tuesday, as something of a no-brainer, maximizing one strength while also addressing a weakness.
And, significantly, manager Kevin Cash talked about Ramirez playing a key role in relief, potentially even closing out games.
"We're not asking him to go to the bullpen and just wait your turn," Cash said. "We're asking him to go to the bullpen and pick us up because Box went down and we need help."
The plan is to use Ramirez just in relief for those first five or six weeks. For the couple of times they do need a fifth starter, they will bring someone up, shuttling out a reliever or the extra position player they are debating on carrying.
That extra starter would most likely be Matt Andriese, who made eight starts last year. Or it could be hotshot prospect Blake Snell, who soared through three levels and was in serious consideration for a September callup. Or a combination, depending on how they work it.
The basic framework, with seven off days in the season's first 40, allows them to get more from the front four of Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore, which, from how they've looked this spring, is a good thing.
"I think any of us, all of us, have the potential to win and compete for the Cy Young," Archer said Tuesday.
They'll all pitch at least twice before the Rays need an extra starter, sometime toward the end of the second week, between April 13 and 16. The same thing happens toward the end of the next week, when they'll need a fifth starter by April 23. And after that, they could get into the second week of May — close to the time Boxberger could be back — before they need help again.
The plan is not without peril. Ramirez, for one, has never pitched in the kind of high-leverage situations they are talking about. Rain on the road could mess up the schedule, or a marathon game where they had to use a starter in relief. And you could question whether they would be more wise to give the starters the extra rest when they can, especially Smyly and Moore, who are both coming off injury-shortened seasons.
"Middle and late in the season, I think it's a little more important" to get the extra day, Archer said. "But early in the season when everybody's fresh, I don't think it will be a big deal at all for us."
The move just about fills the pen, as Ramirez will join Xavier Cedeno, Alex Colome, Enny Romero, Ryan Webb and likely Steve Geltz. That leaves either one or two spots for Danny Farquhar, Dana Eveland, Andrew Bellatti, Andriese or a reliever picked up off waivers, as the Rays also have to decide whether to carry eight relievers or instead keep third catcher Hank Conger or displaced first baseman James Loney around for a while.
The always smiling Ramirez said Tuesday in Dunedin he was perfectly fine with the move and had somewhat anticipated it, with the idea that he eventually will go back to the rotation. "If from the bullpen or if I'm starting, I don't care," he said. "I just want to go there and help the team."
That's exactly what the Rays are counting on, viewing Ramirez as something of a utility pitcher, able to fill any role on the staff because of his ability to bounce back quickly and adapt to any role with no ego or complaints.
"When I say Erasmo will go to the bullpen, he's going to the bullpen to get big outs," Cash said. "He's going to be right in that grouping of game's on the line, tough situations. (We have) all the confidence in the world. He might pitch in the seventh with a one-run lead, he might pitch in the ninth with a one-run lead. And let's say we're up by two or three and we bring him in in the sixth, he might finish a game out. He's versatile. We know how his arm responds. So we're fortunate to have him in that position."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.