Time for Rays to change their pitching plan

This early in the season, with the Rays regularly taking their lumps, it's clear that Yonny Chirinos should join the rotation,
In his major-league debut as a starter, the Rays' Yonny Chirinos delivers a pitch against the Red Sox on Thursday, April 5, 2018, at Fenway Park. [Associated Press]
In his major-league debut as a starter, the Rays' Yonny Chirinos delivers a pitch against the Red Sox on Thursday, April 5, 2018, at Fenway Park. [Associated Press]
Published April 6, 2018

BOSTON — Rays manager Kevin Cash is already so weary of explaining the Rays' — pick your adjective, within the bookends of idiotic and innovative — pitching plan of three starters and five multi-inning relievers that he joked Wednesday they were going to change the terminology.

"As of today we have eight starters; that's our new motto now," he said.
Better, they should just scrap the idea.

Take what rookie Yonny Chirinos did for five impressive innings against the Red Sox in Thursday's "bullpen day" start, plus the four innings he threw Sunday in his big-league debut.

Give him the benefit of four days' rest and the normal starter's routine, preparation and scouting reports.

Then send him to the mound Wednesday in Chicago as part of what would then be a four-man rotation and let him stay, knowing there may be a few bumps, and other options, such as Ryan Yarbrough sooner and Anthony Banda later, if he eventually falters.

As much as the Rays relish being the smartest kids in the class, they didn't plan to be this edgy.

Their idea, as flawed as that may have been, was developed throughout the winter to go through at least the off-day heavy first six weeks of the season with four starters and four long relievers.

They had their reasons: Clear evidence showing how most starters struggle later in games when facing hitters a third time. A stack of talented young arms they felt could be best deployed in more frequent multi-inning relief outings than as No. 5 or Triple-A starters. A favorable schedule, with eight off days in a 38-day span.

It's an idea — tabbed "bullpenning," in that the relievers become more important as roles of most starters, except the true aces, are diminished — the Rays and others around the game have been pondering and toying with implementing for a while.

"We've been waiting 15 years to do it," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said on opening day. "We didn't plan it to be a three-man rotation this year. (But) we've got the right guys in the bullpen. We've got the right starting pitchers. We've got the right defense for it. We need the three legs to that chair."

Their plan was changed dramatically in the 48 hours leading up to the opener when No. 3 starter Nathan Eovaldi, after a solid spring in his return from a second Tommy John surgery, was unexpectedly sidelined due to loose pieces of cartilage in his elbow, requiring arthroscopic surgery.

Without another pitcher stretched out to step in and handle starter duties — and, given Eovaldi's past and Jake Faria's poor spring, this may be where the Rays messed up, by not having somebody else prepared after losing Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon to spring injuries — they felt the better move was to add the fifth long man and wing it with three starters, at least for the first couple weeks.

The results, with two "bullpen day" starts so far and another planned for Sunday, haven't been horrible. If anything, it's been too-short outings by the three actual starters that caused more problems overall: Faria going only four innings on 83 pitches Sunday, Chris Archer five on 96 Tuesday, Blake Snell an abysmal 3 1/3 on 90 Wednesday.

But there have been some resulting issues, at least in games they trail. One is needing to stick with a long reliever to cover multiple innings even if he's not effective and could let the lead widen. Another is reluctance to use their four short relievers when behind, knowing they may be asked to go one-plus innings with a lead. (Hmm … which could be why Alex Colome went a week without pitching before Thursday's meltdown.)

"This is different and they're going to learn along with us,'' manager Kevin Cash said. "It's still in my mind too early to really define what's right and what's not.''

They should have a better read in the next few days.

First, to see how Faria (who is no sure thing to stay in the rotation himself) pitches Saturday and how Sunday's "bullpen day" goes. Yarbrough (who threw nine pitches Thursday), Andrew Kittredge (35) and Austin Pruitt (50 Tuesday) are the likely options, as they seem intent on keeping Matt Andriese in a relief role.

And also because as of Sunday they can start shuttling in fresh arms as players optioned to the minors can be recalled. That means Banda, Chih-Wei Hui, Jose Mujica and Hunter Wood can be added as needed to the bullpen inventory, along with Vidal Nuno and Ryan Weber, who have to be put on the 40-man roster.

But some things already seem clear. Four starters are better than three, and Chirinos should join the band.

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.