ST. PETERSBURG — So, just how are the Rays going to navigate the final seven weeks of the season and, they hope, an extended run in the postseason, after losing a third top starting pitcher?
In a word, carefully.
In a few others, creatively, conversationally and cautiously. And those are just the C’s.
“There’s not,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said, “a whole lot of margin for error from here.”
With Shane McClanahan expected to undergo some form of season-ending surgery this week, joining Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen on the rehab report, the Rays will spend much of August and September piecing together a pitching schedule plan weighing myriad factors.
“Each day there’s going to be a bit more conversation in terms of what the next day would look like than typically you would see at the big-league level,” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said.
In short, the Rays plan to roll initially with only four traditional starters, then add a fifth in September. They are confident they still have enough good arms to win the division and get deep into October, and feel confident their past experience dealing with similar situations will be of great benefit.
“We will get through this, because we’ve got good pitching,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We just have to continue to be creative and communicative. And we’re going to need some guys to step up and get the job done.”
Here is a detailed look at how they plan to make it work.
After playing the most games in baseball through July, the Rays have only 25 in August. They have had two days off already this month, with four to come.
They will use those to their advantage in planning to get through the month with just four starters — right-handers Zach Eflin, Tyler Glasnow, Aaron Civale and converted reliever Zack Littell — using the off days to provide a similar framework as a five-day rotation.
When they do need to cover a game, the plan is for a bullpen day, rotating in a fresh multi-inning reliever from Triple-A when possible.
“Our schedule gives us a chance to be able to do this,” Neander said.
That workload changes on Sept. 1, when the Rays open a stretch of 17 consecutive games, and 23 in 24 days, leading to the final week.
That coincides with rosters expanding by two to 28 (one pitcher, one position player) and seems likely to lead to the return of Taj Bradley, the 22-year-old rookie who both starred and struggled during a 16-start baptism before being sent down July 31 to allow for a reset. After a rough first start for Durham, he had a strong one Thursday, striking out eight over 5-2/3 shutout innings.
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“We’re confident he’s going to be a real factor for us here at some point,” Neander said. “And we’re going to need him.”
Though teams can have only 13 pitchers on their active roster, and 14 from Sept. 1 on, expect the Rays to use a pool of about 20 over the final seven weeks by making a series of call-ups to shuffle the roster and add fresh arms.
Some will be capable of starting or providing multi-inning coverage on bullpen (or blowout) days.
That group includes Cooper Criswell and lefties Josh Fleming (who had been on a rehab assignment), Jalen Beeks and, likely, Jacob Lopez, a 25-year-old who has pitched his way into the conversation by going 3-4 with a 2.67 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 84-1/3 innings at Durham. Plus, Erasmo Ramirez and Shawn Armstrong, who already are on the roster, are good in that role.
The Rays also have a squad of short-inning relievers they can rotate in, including Calvin Faucher, Trevor Kelley, Ryan Thompson (pending the arm issue that has sidelined him at Durham) and Andrew Kittredge (on rehab assignment); and non-roster options, including Javy Guerra, Manny Rodriguez, Hector Perez and Cole Sulser.
The timing of McClanahan’s forearm issue, the day after the official trade deadline, made the impact worse, leaving only limited ways to add players from outside the organization.
Basically, the options are players who are on waivers (with the Rays having a low claiming spot), are released (usually for good reason) or have been in the minors all season (and on minor-league contracts). In other words, not much.
“I think the answers are within our system,” Snyder said.
In introducing the opener and using other creative strategies, and dealing annually with injuries to top pitchers, the Rays are well-versed in scrambling to cover starts and innings.
They just didn’t expect to be doing so now after stocking their rotation — for the first time in years — with five traditional starters. But here they are, with the fab five never taking even one turn together. The two remaining starters have at least slight injury concerns: Glasnow, slated to start Monday after a bout with back spasms; and Eflin (left knee soreness). The other two, trade acquisition Civale and Littell, may run into workload issues.
Every decision the Rays make on who to pitch now has to be weighed against the options and impact on the rest of the staff.
They may want to shorten up the starters in August, since they won’t get extra days of rest but don’t want to increase the bullpen workload and have them be worn out in September.
Of extreme importance will be doing all they can — “Our radar is going to be a little higher,” Snyder said — to make sure no other pitchers get hurt.
“We have a lot of experience putting games together without a true starter and doing that in a way that’s reasonable and responsible to those pitchers and those around them,” Neander said. “We’re going to have to tap back into that in a way that when this year started wasn’t exactly the way we designed it.”
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