Rays Starters: Five Man Rotation, Opener, and Workload Management

Questions Abound About How To Manage The Rays Starting Staff In 2020

Tampa Bay Rays Morton Defeats Twins
Tampa Bay Rays’ Charlie Morton pitches to a Minnesota Twins batter during the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, May 30, 2019, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The Tampa Bay Rays starting staff finished second in the American League with a 3.64 ERA, first in FIP at 3.64, and second in strikeout rate at 27.8%.

For the second consecutive year, Tampa Bay employed the opener and had to endure injuries to key members of their starting rotation. “Everybody talks about doing unique and creative things. You have to have good pitchers.” Manager Kevin Cash said. “We’ve been fortunate for the last couple of seasons – really this organization for the last 10 years have kind of set a pretty high bar with quality pitchers and no different the last two years.”

Last season the Rays had 14 different pitchers make a start. Charlie Morton led the way with 33. Reliever Ryne Stanek who was traded to the Miami Marlins on July 31st was second with 27. Injuries limited Blake Snell to 23 starts, Yonny Chirinos to 18, and Tyler Glasnow to 12. Rookie Brendan McKay made 11 starts after starting the season in Double-A.

Opener Or A Five Man Rotation?

“It’s a fun group to dream on that’s for sure.” That’s how Rays Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Erik Neander characterizes the possibility of a healthy rotation of Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, Tyler Glassnow, Yonny Chirinos, and Ryan Yarbrough.

The top of the rotation looks extremely strong. “You look ahead to next year Charlie (Morton) he did everything that we wanted him to do and a heck of a lot more. Blake (Snell) we got to see Blake at the end of the year in that Houston series and that last outing it’s like ‘There’s Blake again’. Glass getting back on the hill, the way the ball was coming out there.” Neander said. “That 1-2-3 is pretty special and then you think of the next line of defense in whatever order you want to put them.

On top of the big three the Rays have a strong bottom of the rotation in Yarbrough, Chirinos, and McKay. “What Yarbrough did last year was very impressive. I think it can be easily overlooked whether it’s because of the velo or because of the guys ahead of him I don’t know but did a masterful job.” Neander said. ” Yonny Chirinos really really solid work. Brendan (McKay) got his feet wet. He got some good learning experiences and the pulse is still as steady as can be. As excited as ever about his potential.” 

Stepping back and looking at the group of six it’s fair to ask, ‘Can the Rays get by with just a standard five man rotation and leave the opener behind?’ Neander says its reasonable that it could be done saying that ” we’re not going to not do it just to not do it.” He points out that everything the team has done over the last couple of seasons has been to put each individual player in the best position to maximize their success building their confidence while not asking too much of him.

Could A Starting Pitcher Be Traded?

The Rays have the six starting pitchers listed above in addition to Trevor Richards, Jalen Beeks, Anthony Banda, Austin Pruitt (out of options), and Brent Honeywell (returning from injury). With pitching at a premium all across baseball, it’s only natural that Erik Neander’s phone is going to be ringing with request for an arm.

When asked if he could see this happening Neander responded, “As soon as you say yes to that it bites you. We like what we have. I think we learned a lot of valuable lessons last year about how much you truly need, not just to survive, but to have success.”

He also hedged about saying that the team shouldn’t have unnecessary insurance to navigate a season and that should be balanced properly. “We’re always open minded and always receptive to whatever may be incoming, but it’s not something we’re actively taking for granted or looking to thin out.” he said. “We know who we are to some degree.”

Following up on his comments regarding the possible trading of a starter at the Winter Meetings Neander said. “We have a lot of really good players. Really good players are desirable to other teams and their really good players are desirable to us.” Again he mentioned how the team saw first hand last year that you can really never have enough depth and talent to navigate a season.

Bottom line, Neander appears to be suggesting that the Rays like the depth of their starting staff, have seen first hand how depth can be thinned quickly through injury, but carrying too much depth can lead to an imbalance on the roster. It seems to me, that he is suggesting that the Rays are willing to listen on a starter if the return is right.

 Starters Workload A Concern?

The Rays starting staff was hit with injuries in 2019. Blake Snell, Tyler Glassnow, and Yonny Chirinos all missed time in 2019 due to injury. Because of the injuries, each player will have their innings monitored in 2020. How will Kevin Cash manage the staff’s workload next season. The answer begins with getting input from multiple people.

“We’ll sit down as a group, the front office, Kyle Snyder, Stan (Borowski) will be involved and our medical group, Joe Binge (trainer) will have a lot of input on what he thinks.” Cash said.

“Kyle does a tremendous job of easing these guys into it. You would like to think with the time missed that they’re that much fresher going into the season. I don’t know if it always works out that way.”

Charlie Morton wasn’t injured in 2019, but his workload was much more than the Rays wanted and that is probably going to have to be lightened up a bit. “Obviously aware of Charlie Morton’s workload.” Cash said. “It was bigger than what we wanted. We don’t get where we did without having Charlie fulfill those innings in and that workload, and we will talk about all those things with him specifically and the other guys get ’em ready to pitch.”

Morton Career High Innings Pitched:

Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05 ERA) is the only member of the staff to log more than 150 big league innings in 2019. His 194.2-IP was a career best for the 36 year old. He added another 10 innings between the Wild Card game (5-IP) against the Oakland Athletics and against the Houston Astros in the ALDS (5-IP).   As Father Time enters the equation, it is more than likely that Morton’s innings will be trimmed in 2020. His 33 starts were also a career high.

Yarbrough Ran Out Of Gas:

Ryan Yarbrough (11-6, 4.13 ERA) delivered an impressive 141.2-innings in 2019 and threw an additional 26 frames with the Triple-A Durham Bulls. He added 3.0 innings in the ALDS against the Houston Astros.  His combined 167.2-innings marked a career high for the lefty. The fatigue of the innings pitched may have factored into his for his poor September. In the seasons final month he pitched to an 0-3 mark with a 7.52 ERA (22-ER/26.1-IP) while the opposition battered him to the tune of .321/.373/.532. His previous career high in innings pitched was with the Durham Bulls in 2017 in which he logged 157.1 innings.

Barking Elbow Cost Glassnow Innings:

Tyler Glasnow (6-1, 1.78 ERA) was placed on the 10-day injured list on May 11th with a right forearm strain which kept him out of action until September 8th.  The injury limited him to just 12 starts and 60.2 innings of work with an additional 2.1-innings rehabbing with the Durham Bulls. He also delivered seven innings against the Houston Astros in the ALDS. His career high in innings pitched came in 2017 when he threw 155.1 innings between the Pirates Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis Indians (93.1-IP) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (62.0-IP).

Chirinos Injured Finger In Midst Of Breakout Season:

Yonny Chirinos (9-5, 3.85 ERA) was placed on the injured list on August 5th with right middle finger inflammation.  The injury kept him out of action until September 21st and limited him to just 133.1 innings on the season. His career high innings pitched came in 2017 when he logged 168.1-innings between the Rays Double-A affiliate Montgomery Biscuits (27.1-IP) and the Durham Bulls (141-IP).

McKay Gets Good Exposure In Debut Season:

Brendan McKay (2-4, 5.14 ERA) was placed on the Durham Bulls 7-day injury list on August 23rd with left shoulder fatigue that kept him out of action until August 31st. Overall, between the Montgomery Biscuits (41.2-IP), Durham Bulls (32-IP), and the Rays (49IP), McKay delivered 122.2-innings. His career high in innings came in 2017 with 129 frames which includes 109-innings with the Louisville Cardinals and 20-innings after signing with Tampa Bay and reporting to the Hudson Valley Renegades.

Richards Has Experience In Rotation:

Trevor Richards (6-12, 4.06 ERA) was acquired along with Nick Anderson from the Miami Marlins in exchange for Ryne Stanek and minor league outfielder Jesus Sanchez on July 31st. Overall he logged 140.2-innings on the year which included the Marlins (112-IP), the Rays (23.1-IP), and the Durham Bulls (5.1-IP). Last season he threw a career best 165.2 innings split between the Marlins (126.1-IP) and the Marlins Triple-A affiliate New Orleans Baby Cakes (39.1-IP).

The Rays have to be cautious with their starting staff knowing that the 162-game season is a grind. Trading a starting pitcher will make it even harder to find success if injuries hit the rotation again in 2020. The opener may be employed during the season just to have a quasi-six man rotation or a six man rotation may be used in parts of the season when the schedule doesn’t afford an off-day to give the pitchers an extra day of rest.

All told, managing the workload will be a backdrop of a lot of decisions as to how many innings a pitcher goes, who gets the extra-day off when the schedule affords it, who gets skipped in the rotation, and if a six man rotation or opener is used.