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This baseball manager business is not quite as easy as it looks

John Romano | With eight weeks to go, Rays manager Kevin Cash needs to protect the arms of starting pitchers while keeping the team in the pennant race.
Do you suppose Kevin Cash is thinking about today or tomorrow? About winning this game, or keeping arms fresh for October? About the health of today's starter, or the guys in the bullpen?
Do you suppose Kevin Cash is thinking about today or tomorrow? About winning this game, or keeping arms fresh for October? About the health of today's starter, or the guys in the bullpen? [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 8

ST. PETERSBURG — Everyone loves to play manager. It’s one of the true joys of watching baseball.

Between the game’s pace and the wealth of numbers at our fingertips, there are a half-dozen or so key moments in every game when a fan at home can declare a strategy ahead of a manager’s decision.

Do you hit and run? Is it time to pull a pitcher? Do you pinch-hit? Is it time for a defensive replacement? We shout to the rooftops on those occasions when our verified strategy works, and we forget instantly the many times when they would have blown up in our faces.

So tell me, what would you do today if you were Kevin Cash?

Because the Rays manager is facing a perilous dance between needing to win in the regular season while being mindful of postseason preparation. He is also facing the choice between doing what’s right for the entire team and being responsible for the careers of individuals.

In short, he is stuck in a no-man’s land of impossible choices.

I was reminded of this while watching Sunday’s game against the Tigers. For an innocuous afternoon affair against a non-division opponent, it was still a critical game in Tampa Bay’s season.

Rays starter Drew Rasmussen has a short outing Sunday vs. the Tigers, and not because of any poor pitches.
Rays starter Drew Rasmussen has a short outing Sunday vs. the Tigers, and not because of any poor pitches. [ CARLOS OSORIO | AP ]

The Rays had gone weeks without winning a single series. So Sunday’s result was going to be the difference between a satisfying 3-1 series victory or a disappointing 2-2 split against a last-place team.

With that backdrop in mind, Cash had decided before the game even began that starting pitcher Drew Rasmussen was not going to throw more than three innings.

Now, you might ask why.

(Or you might scream, WHAT THE %$#&?)

The answer is complex. Rasmussen, you see, is 27 years old but has never thrown more than 100 innings in a professional season. He had Tommy John surgery in the middle of his sophomore season in college, then a second Tommy John operation less than two years later.

Both the Brewers (who drafted him in 2018) and the Rays (who acquired him in 2021) have been mindful of his medical history. That’s why, before Sunday, Rasmussen had never gone over 90 innings in any pro season. After the third inning against the Tigers, he was at 91.1 innings for 2022.

Now, it’s not as if the Rays are not willing to push him to new heights. He will certainly pass 100 innings in the next couple of months, and could surpass 130 innings by the end of the postseason.

But the Rays are not keen on the idea of Rasmussen jumping from 89.1 innings last season to more than 150 innings this season and so they are managing his workload now so they don’t have to shut him down during a potential playoff series.

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And Cash was willing to risk the wrath of critics in a fairly key game against the Tigers with the Mariners, Orioles and Indians nipping at his heels in the wild-card race.

As it turns out, the bullpen pitched magnificently and the offense came alive in the ninth inning and the Rays got their series win by beating the Tigers 7-0.

The innings are also adding up for Rays starter Jeffrey Springs.
The innings are also adding up for Rays starter Jeffrey Springs. [ CARLOS OSORIO | AP ]

But the decisions will not end there, and they will not be limited to Rasmussen.

Jeffrey Springs and Corey Kluber have already thrown more innings than in any season since 2018, and Shane McClanahan is one inning away from a new career-high.

All three of those starters have also seen their ERAs jump significantly in recent outings, which could be a fluke or could be a sign that their arms are getting weary.

And so Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder need to figure out a way to keep the rotation intact in the next eight weeks while trying to secure a wild card and also making sure that their starters are not running on fumes if the Rays reach the postseason in October.

There could be help on the way from the injured list. Yonny Chirinos is throwing again. So is Tyler Glasnow. Those guys are not likely to show up at Tropicana Field throwing six innings at a stretch, but they could give the rotation a break while working as openers.

Luis Patino is also throwing again at Triple-A Durham and could offer rotation depth if he ever gets his command under control.

And, oh by the way, the Rays have to pull all of this juggling off without burning out the bullpen, which turned out to be a problem in the 2020 postseason.

It worked on Sunday in Detroit, but who knows what happens on Tuesday in Milwaukee.

Still think you would enjoy being a big league manager?

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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