Teams have relied on five-man starting rotations since the dawn of time but the Rays are breaking from tradition. This year they’ll employ four main starters while designating a “bullpen day” every time a fifth starter is needed.
Now let's not give the Rays too much credit for this genius innovation. Relying on a host of relievers has become common practice during double-headers and teams have also championed this approach in the postseason. The previous Rays manager, Joe Maddon, took this idea to its logical extreme in the 2013 ALDS, pulling “starter” Jeremy Hellickson after 1 2/3 innings before bombarding the Red Sox with EIGHT different pitchers over the next 7 1/3 innings. Similarly, then-Yankees manager Joe Girardi turned last year’s winner-take-all AL Wild Card matchup into a bullpen game by giving a struggling Luis Severino the hook after a mere 29 pitches.
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On the surface, manager Kevin Cash’s decision to go with a four-man rotation almost feels like a publicity stunt to draw attention to a struggling franchise. Let’s be honest—being a Rays fan isn’t for the faint of heart. They play their home games at the cavernous, outdated Tropicana Field, rarely do much of anything in free agency and trade players as soon as they become stars. That’s not exactly a winning formula. After trading the most beloved player in franchise history, Evan Longoria, this offseason, the Rays may need a gimmick to get fans back in the seats.
Chris Archer will start Opening Day against the Red Sox, followed by promising, young left-hander Blake Snell. Now here’s where it gets interesting. Tampa Bay gets a scheduled off day between their second and third games. After the off day, the Rays will hand things over to the bullpen before giving Nathan Eovaldi the ball for game four Monday against the Yankees. Jake Faria would then start Tampa Bay’s fifth game, also against the Yankees, on Wednesday. The logic here is that the Rays would prefer to give Eovaldi an extra day of rest coming off Tommy John surgery. Assuming the starters follow their usual regimen of pitching once every fifth day, the Rays wouldn’t need to dig into their pen again until April 11.
So why is Tampa Bay so gung-ho on this four-starter experiment? Cash claims it’s because the Rays have a lot of long reliever types who can go more than one inning. I’m sure Cash meant that as a compliment to guys like Matt Andriese and Austin Pruitt, and maybe pitching two or three innings once every few days is the best application of those particular players. But to me, it says the Rays are short on arms, which has to be a first. Tampa Bay has been a pitching factory for as long as I can remember. Even when the Rays couldn’t hit a lick, their pitching usually saved them. And whenever they traded a David Price or a Matt Moore, it always felt like there was another arm waiting in the wings.
Don’t get the wrong idea—the Rays DO have talented pitching. Archer is a legit ace, Faria is coming off a low-key great rookie season and even the embattled Snell threw well down the stretch last year. But keep in mind the Rays traded Jake Odorizzi to Minnesota this offseason and lost Alex Cobb in free agency (he’s still on the market). To make matters worse, two of Tampa Bay’s top prospects—Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon—are recovering from Tommy John surgery. The firepower just isn’t there right now, so Cash is making lemonade out of lemons.
The four-man rotation could very well prove unsustainable, but it does work in theory, especially for a rebuilding team like the Rays. For one, the bullpen day is flexible, so whenever the Rays feel one of their starters needs an extra day—whether it’s Eovaldi coming off Tommy John or Archer if he’s logging a ton of innings—the starters can sit back and let the bullpen work its magic. Secondly, the so-called bullpen day is an excellent testing ground for Quad-A type players who wouldn’t normally get that opportunity. Instead of spending the whole year in Durham, waiting for a starter in the big leagues to get hurt, the Anthony Bandas and Ryan Yarbroughs of the world can get their feet wet in the majors by throwing a few innings in a bullpen game. And there’s no danger of the real relievers—the day-to-day setup men—being overworked because bullpen days would belong to the hybrid guys who shuttle between Durham and the major leagues. It’s not ideal and I’d even argue that Andriese, who carried a 3.54 ERA before his hip injury last year—belongs in the rotation. But it could work and with Boston and New York expected to run circles around the rest of the division, the Rays can afford to get weird.
Ten years ago, in 2008, 34 pitchers in the major leagues logged 200-plus innings. That number was scaled back to 15 last year. That’s no coincidence. Even workhorses like Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner don’t have the free reign that they used to. Teams are vigilant in monitoring pitch counts, giving players lighter workloads in spring training and affording them as much recovery time as possible. Many teams in recent years have, at least on a trial basis, employed six-man rotations to give their starters more rest.
CC Sabathia threw 10 complete games in 2008. The reigning league leader, Ervin Santana, had five such games in 2017. Now that kids grow up playing baseball year-round on the AAU circuit, high-school and college players arriving in the minor leagues have more tread on their tires than they did maybe 10 or 20 years ago, which puts them at much greater injury risk. Not to mention that pitchers throw harder now than ever before. It’s a complicated equation but it makes you wonder if there will eventually be a day when starting rotations no longer exist and bullpen games with pitchers going 2-or-3 innings at a time will become the norm. I’m not sure if the Rays have it right, or if they even have the right pieces to pull it off, but in the age of analytics, it’s always good to try something different. Let the grand experiment begin.
AL Quick Hits: Josh Donaldson is slated to return to Grapefruit League action Friday against the Phillies. The Blue Jays have been keeping the former AL MVP out as a precaution after he left a game last Saturday with a calf cramp … Marcus Stroman will make his spring debut Saturday when the Blue Jays take on the Canadian Junior National Team. Stroman got a late start this spring while battling shoulder inflammation. He won’t be ready for Opening Day but shouldn’t miss much time … Randal Grichuk missed another game on Thursday. He’s still day-to-day with a rib cage injury. It’s been a rough spring for Grichuk, who also missed time with a sprained wrist at the start of camp … Dallas Keuchel spun five shutout frames Thursday in a win over Washington. The left-hander has been lights out for Houston with a 1.74 ERA over three Grapefruit League outings … Andrelton Simmons went 2-for-4 with an RBI Thursday in his return to Cactus League action. A strained left shoulder kept the three-time Gold Glover out for a week … Jharel Cotton has been diagnosed with a strained UCL and a strained flexor muscle in his right elbow. A’s manager Bob Melvin admitted that surgery is a possibility for Cotton, who struggled to a 5.58 ERA over 24 starts last season … The Royals have tapped Danny Duffy as their Opening Day starter. It will be his first Opening Day nod. The left-hander finished with a losing record last year (9-10) but impressed with a 3.81 ERA over 24 starts for KC … A right quad strain will sideline Mark Trumbo for 3-4 weeks. With Trumbo on the shelf, non-roster invitee Pedro Alvarez has an increased chance to crack the Orioles’ Opening Day roster … Jonathan Schoop went yard for the third time in as many games Thursday in a 1-0 win over St. Louis. The Baltimore second baseman has had a monster spring, hitting .441 with five homers in 34 Grapefruit League at-bats … Eduardo Rodriguez threw live batting practice on Thursday and is expected to pitch in a minor league game next Tuesday. The Red Sox left-hander is still working back from October knee surgery and won’t be ready for Opening Day.
NL Quick Hits: Zack Greinke played catch on Thursday but won’t throw his usual between-starts bullpen session on Saturday and has also been ruled out for his scheduled start Monday against the White Sox. The right-hander exited Wednesday’s start with tightness in his right groin and probably won’t be ready for Opening Day … Scooter Gennett was scratched from Thursday’s Cactus League game versus Cleveland because of a sore right shoulder. The 27-year-old set career-highs in both home runs (27) and RBI (97) for the Reds last season … Ender Inciarte was slated to hit leadoff against the Tigers on Thursday but sat out with left groin tightness. Braves manager Brian Snitker downplayed the injury, claiming Inciarte would have played if it were a regular season game. Look for him to return to Grapefruit League action on Saturday … Tom Murphy bowed out of Thursday’s Cactus League game against the Angels after a backswing struck his helmet. The Rockies called his exit precautionary, though it might be a few days before we see him back behind the plate … Carlos Gonzalez got a nice ovation Thursday in his first Cactus League game since re-signing with the Rockies earlier this week. He went 1-for-3 at the dish in a 9-8 loss to the Angels … Corey Seager has been serving as the Dodgers’ DH while battling an elbow injury but is expected to make his Cactus League debut at shortstop on Friday. He looked healthy on Thursday, slugging his first home run of the spring in a loss to Kansas City … Javier Baez is on track to return Saturday after missing the last week with a minor hamstring injury. The 25-year-old was having a good spring before he got hurt, batting .313 over 16 Cactus League at-bats … According to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, the Braves have “checked in” on free agent closer Greg Holland. The three-time All-Star is tied to draft-pick compensation, which may explain why teams have been reluctant to sign him. The Rangers, who are also in the market for bullpen help, will not be pursuing the 32-year-old … Adam Eaton may make his Grapefruit League debut over the weekend. The Nationals have been taking things slow with Eaton, who sat out most of last year with a torn ACL.