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Rays’ pitching plans: Open-minded and creative

With new faces and different challenges, there is lots to discuss and no set strategy yet.
The Rays' Chris Archer, left, and Rich Hill are front and center with pitching coach Kyle Snyder during Thursday's opening workout in Port Charlotte.
The Rays' Chris Archer, left, and Rich Hill are front and center with pitching coach Kyle Snyder during Thursday's opening workout in Port Charlotte. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]
Published Feb. 19

The team that brought you the opener, did away with the closer label and seeks out lefty relievers in right-handers’ bodies has a warning for the rest of the league:

Now the Rays are going to get really creative with their pitching plans.

As the Rays assembled for their first workout of the spring Thursday in Port Charlotte, a modest goal was learning the names and faces of all 40 pitchers on the roster, especially with 14 new to the organization.

Next will come sorting out how healthy and ready they are, what each does well and how they might be able to help. And sometime, preferably before the April 1 opener, how to best align them to navigate a season expected to be riddled with challenges stemming from the pandemic.

Related: Blue Jays set to open season in Dunedin

“We’re going to be really open-minded,” manager Kevin Cash said on a media Zoom call after the opening session. “I think first and foremost we’ve got to get a pretty good sense of where these guys are coming in, and their buildup, how their offseasons went. Obviously be very aware of what their workload was the previous year or previous multiple seasons. Find out how they bounce back.

“I think it’s fair to assume that we’ll find ways to be creative. But to say on (Feb. 18) that we know exactly how it’s going to unfold would be wrong of us.”

The offseason following their thrilling run to the World Series was mostly frustrating. Managing their budget led to a disarming of the staff, headlined by parting ways with top starters Blake Snell (who was traded to San Diego) and Charlie Morton (who signed with Atlanta after his option was declined).

Then they rallied recently, in something more of a quantity over quality approach, with a series of signings. They brought back Chris Archer, and brought in veteran free agents Rich Hill, Michael Wacha and, soon, Collin McHugh.

They will join returnees Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough, plus a group of young and promising candidates, such as Josh Fleming, Luis Patino (the key return for Snell), Shane McClanahan and Brent Honeywell. They also expect Brendan McKay, who had surgery to repair a torn labrum, back at some point during the year. And another surprise or two, like Fleming last year, could emerge.

Related: Rich Hill signed with Rays for a big reason

The Rays have talent. Glasnow, now the incumbent ace, said while the losses were tough, what they put together is enough to “compete with anyone out there.” Hill had a more descriptive take: “It’s like the land of redwoods over here, there’s a lot of tall guys, big arms.”

And they have options. Some of the veterans may not stay healthy, and a few of the young guys may not be ready. But within that group, they have stockpiled pitchers, maybe 10 deep, capable of working at least 80 to 100 innings.

Ryan Yarbrough is among the Rays pitchers and catchers who attended the first spring training workout at Charlotte Sports Park.
Ryan Yarbrough is among the Rays pitchers and catchers who attended the first spring training workout at Charlotte Sports Park. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]

The team that trashed the traditional rotation format by having relievers open games and starters work bulk innings is plotting to try something different again.

They’re just not sure exactly what.

In part, that’s because they don’t know what hurdles they will face. Or how much depth they will need.

One major question is how pitchers will handle the workload of a full season coming off the abbreviated 2020, whether the increase in innings will lead to injuries.

“I don’t know if any of us know what a guy that threw 180-200 innings in 2019, and was totally healthy in 2020, what is he capable of doing in 2021 over what we are hoping to have a full season of 162 games,” Cash said.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of pitchers that are saying, you know what, all that did was freshen me up for the next year, and they might be right. But shame on us if we’re going to sit and go into it thinking this is exactly how it’s going to go. I think every pitcher is individual and knows their body really well, and we’re going to have to do a good job of listening to what they’re telling us.”

Related: New at Rays camp: Tyler Glasnow has a slider

Another issue is whether the schedule becomes taxing if cancellations due to positive COVID-19 tests lead to doubleheaders piling up. Also, having several of their own pitchers sidelined by injury or illness.

What they’re not planning, Cash said, are six-man rotations, as some teams will use, nor tag-team games, where two “starters” are slotted for roughly four innings each.

There’s still a lot to be talked about between the front office, the analytics staff, Cash, coaches Kyle Snyder and Stan Boroski, and the pitchers.

“We’re excited, really excited about the potential of our pitching group, and how it comes together,” Cash said. “It should be a lot of fun. A lot of communication. Kyle and Stan will be leaned on heavily with the information that they get from each individual pitcher. And then we’ll take that into consideration on how we can slot guys in to give us the best chance and best, quote unquote, rotation.”

One way or another.