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As the Rays season begins, watch for the guys not yet here

John Romano | Tampa Bay’s success in 2021 could depend on the development of the starting pitchers who are waiting in the wings at the minor-league camp.
Published Apr. 1
Updated Apr. 1

MIAMI — Think of the baseball season as a series of calculations. You have a certain number of innings that must be covered, and a limited number of pitchers to do the job.

The traditional method is to settle on five starting pitchers in the spring and pray they will provide roughly half the 1,450 innings or so you will need during a 162-game season.

Of course, for most teams, that’s just a fantasy. Pitchers get hurt, pitchers fail to perform. And seasons typically start to crumble with every starter who falls by the wayside.

Which is why the Rays will be doing it a little differently. Not that they aren’t hoping for long outings and loud ovations for the five starters who open the season today, but hopes and wishes are not a strategy.

Depth and contingency plans, however, are.

The Rays may not have a single starting pitcher crack 170 innings this season — no one on their current staff has thrown that many innings since 2017 — but they could have a small army of pitchers cycling through the rotation.

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Part of that is by design. The shortened 2020 season is going to make a lot of general managers wary about injuries as starters try to ramp back up after throwing 75 innings or so last season. And part of that is by necessity. Tampa Bay cannot easily afford the kind of aces who start 30 or more games season after season. Even after last year’s World Series appearance, the Rays declined a $15 million option on Charlie Morton and traded Blake Snell, who was due to make $39 million over the next three seasons.

What the Rays did instead was look for the sweet spot between quantity and quality. To go along with Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough, they signed three veteran starters — Chris Archer, Rich Hill and Michael Wacha — with impressive pedigrees and thick medical files.

Archer missed the entire 2020 season following thoracic outlet surgery, Wacha has struggled with shoulder issues for years, and Hill has been on the injured list nine times in the past five years with shoulder fatigue, a forearm strain, a knee sprain, a groin strain and blisters on his pitching fingers.

“History tells us,” manager Kevin Cash said, “that guys are, unfortunately, going to get hurt.”

Shane McClanahan will bide his time for a bit before likely getting called back up to join the Rays' major-league rotation.
Shane McClanahan will bide his time for a bit before likely getting called back up to join the Rays' major-league rotation. [ IVY CEBALLO ]

The Rays know this all too well. Yonny Chirinos missed almost all of last season, and Morton was sidelined for a spell, too. Glasnow and Snell both missed a sizable chunk of time in 2019. To assume Hill, Wacha and Archer won’t run into issues in 2021 is wishful thinking.

But this is where quantity comes in. The Rays have a collection of young arms at the minor-league training site that would be the envy of almost any organization. And Wacha, Archer and Hill, who are all on one-year deals, will give the young guys a little more time to develop.

Both Luis Patino and Shane McClanahan are on the top 100 prospects list for Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. Both Brendan McKay and Brent Honeywell were near the top of those lists before injuries. And that doesn’t include Josh Fleming, who went 5-0 with a 2.78 ERA last season and will probably be the first pitcher called up from the minor-league site.

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It also doesn’t include Shane Baz and Joe Ryan, who haven’t been added to the 40-man roster yet, but could still see time in Tampa Bay this season.

“We feel as a group and as a staff, we’re very fortunate with the talent level at the alternate site,” Cash said. “Given the unforeseen, or if somebody happens to get hurt early on, we would feel horrible for that individual, but feel really good about the group of guys we can pull from.”

So are the young guys a safety net for Archer, Hill and Wacha, or are the three veterans a temporary bridge to the inevitable? Either way you look at it, the Rays have plenty of options over the next six months.

It may not be the classic model of five starters combining for 750 innings or more — the way the Dodgers, Yankees, Padres and Nationals will likely do it — and the Rays are not making any top-10 lists of MLB rotations, but don’t be shocked to see Tampa Bay in a familiar place come September.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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