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Rays are up to their old tricks with new pitching plan

Rays Tales | In between extended opener assignments and tandem starters is something different. Plus, rumblings.
While referencing the Rays' pitching plan as a front office creation and “what their model is here,” Rich Hill said he has agreed to be all in on whatever they ask him to do.
While referencing the Rays' pitching plan as a front office creation and “what their model is here,” Rich Hill said he has agreed to be all in on whatever they ask him to do. [ JED JACOBSOHN | Associated Press ]
Published May 8
Updated May 8

Manager Kevin Cash isn’t being difficult or playing coy (most of the time) when he says he doesn’t know the Rays’ pitching plan for the next day’s game until the previous one is over.

Having changed the game with their 2018 implementation of the opener strategy — and the accompanying introduction of the awkward sounding “bulk inning” role that no one has been able to better name — the Rays are it again.

There’s no specific designation or melodious moniker, but somewhere in between extending the opener job to several innings and pairing pitchers to share games in scheduled tandem starts, the Rays are again doing things differently.

The combo of their latest creative thinking and the health issues of being careful with pitchers coming off injuries and limiting workloads for promising youngsters such as Shane McClanahan and Luis Patino is the reason you’re seeing more abbreviated starts and multi-inning relief outings.

Related: Rays avoid perfect game and no-hitter, but lose to A's

“Our pitching staff is just built a little differently this year,” Cash explained. “We’ve had more candidates in that flex option. In the past, it’s basically been we’ve had starters or relievers, and then it turned into opener/bulk guy.

“Well, this year, we’ve got a bunch of guys that are capable of providing between two and four innings of work. So it has allowed for a little bit of creativity. And then you add a guy like McClanahan and Luis Patino that you’re trying to manage their workload really well and their buildup as they’re continuing to develop into this season. So there has been some more creativity.”

Injuries to several relievers have forced some changes, as have the absences of starter Chris Archer (who left his April 10 start with an elbow issue and has been away from the team dealing with a private family matter) and Michael Wacha (who went on the injured list Tuesday with hamstring tightness).

Veteran Rich Hill, for example, agreed to a hybrid role where he would work as an extended opener every third day or so, then with Wacha out slid back into more of a traditional starter’s slot Friday.

Having let two of their top 2020 starters go, and opting to replace them with more of a quantity-over-quality approach, this was the plan the Rays came up with going into the season. And with a strategic benefit, knowing from using the opener there is an edge in forcing hitters to face a different pitcher each at-bat.

“It was more by design ... knowing that that we were going to have to utilize our entire pitching staff and make sure that we’re doing a good job keeping guys fresh,” Cash said. “But also giving opponents as many different looks as possible.”

Rays starting pitcher Collin McHugh throws against the Angels during the first inning of Thursday's game.
Rays starting pitcher Collin McHugh throws against the Angels during the first inning of Thursday's game. [ JAE C. HONG | Associated Press ]

How long the Rays can sustain the plan is a good question, and one that Hill said he has wondered about given the limits of having only 13 or 14 pitchers available.

“If we had a larger roster, I feel like that we could do more of what is being proposed more frequently,” said Hill, 41 and in his 17th season. “But I feel like sometimes you could run into issues as far as usage.”

Patino, for example, has been used on basically a starter’s schedule out of the bullpen, pitching three times in his first 12 days on the roster, but working only 2 2/3 innings (as an opener), then two and three.

There is also a question of who does what. “A lot of us have been kind of trying to figure out exactly where we fit in, both on the staff and kind of in the context of what we need to do this year, which is fill a bunch of innings,” reliever Collin McHugh said. “And we’ve got to figure out ways to do it in a efficient manner, but also, in a way that kind of protects and maximizes what each guy can do.”

The Rays needed ways to get through the injuries and rugged stretch of 30 games in 31 days that ends Sunday. There will be more flexibility; starting Monday they have five days off and only 27 games in 32 days.

While referencing the plan as a front office creation and “what their model is here,” Hill said he has agreed to be all in on whatever they ask him to do.

“I want to win,” he said. “Whatever we need to ... (put) us in the best position possible to succeed in the playoffs, I’m all for it.”

Albert Pujols as a Devil Ray?

Albert Pujols getting designated for assignment last week reminds us of how he could have been a Ray. Going into the 1999 draft, midwest scout Fernando Arango was a big proponent of the thick-bodied junior college shortstop and got his Devil Rays bosses to invite Pujols down for a private workout, the only team to do so.

But in what was deemed an “ugly” session all around, Pujols was so rough in the field the Rays asked him to put on catcher’s gear. No team was too impressed as Pujols lasted until the 13th round — 402nd overall — when St. Louis took a $60,000 flyer that worked out pretty well.

Blue Jays say thanks to Dunedin

Fans make their way into TD Ballpark prior to the Toronto Blue Jays home opener against the Los Angeles Angels on April 8 in Dunedin.
Fans make their way into TD Ballpark prior to the Toronto Blue Jays home opener against the Los Angeles Angels on April 8 in Dunedin. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The May 24 game against the Rays will be the last of the 10 remaining for the Jays at their spring base in Dunedin before shifting their temporary regular-season “home” to Buffalo, N.Y. Team president Mark Shapiro said they appreciated the hospitality:

“While we never could have imagined playing major-league games in Dunedin, it is fitting that as the only spring home the Blue Jays franchise has ever known, we extend our relationship with the city in such a unique way. We are both proud and appreciative for our bond with the community, and know we will look back on this juncture as a piece of history for both the city of Dunedin and the Blue Jays organization. We are grateful to have had this temporary home with such a supportive community and are excited about the next 30 years of Blue Jays player development and spring training in Dunedin.”

Rays rumblings

This could be a big week, for both Ji-Man Choi, who may be coming back from the injured list, and for Yoshi Tsutsugo — $7 million salary and all — who may be going to make room. … No, the Rays don’t have a slot for Pujols. ... Triple-A Durham’s roster, stocked with prospects Wander Franco, Vidal Brujan and Taylor Walls among others, was ranked most talented in the minors by Baseball America and mlb.com. … As a kid growing up in the St. Louis area, Josh Fleming not only had a Pujols Cardinals jersey, but also one of then-St. Louis starter, and now Rays teammate, Wacha. Fleming plans to have his parents ship it down so he can wear it to the field when Wacha makes his first start coming off the injured list.. … It’s New York, New York week at the Trop with the Yankees and Mets coming in. … Assuming he starts Sunday and has no issues with his sore lat, Mets ace Jacob deGrom, the DeLand native and Stetson University product, will pitch next weekend at the Trop for just the second time, first since 2015. Which also means the Rays would face deGrom and Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in the same week. ... There’s now a @RaysPlayerDev Twitter account run by the team to provide minor-league news and updates. … Pitcher Seth Johnson, a 2019 draft pick now with Low-A Charleston (S.C.), made Baseball America’s scout-compiled list of 28 less-heralded prospects who stood out in spring training.

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