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The Rays can stop searching: Yonny Chirinos is ready to be a starting pitcher

Yonny Chirinos has aligned with the Rays fourth starter position

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Chicago White Sox Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays “bullpen day” experimentation has doubled as an adventure in mislabeling, as it’s really a strategy designed to get all of the Rays capable starters onto the mound, with some allowance to roll relief pitchers out at the start of games as warranted.

It should have been a brilliant idea, but the communication of that idea only resulted in ridicule, with Kevin Cash only changing his rhetoric to call all of his longmen “starters” instead of relievers — April 6: “As of today we have eight starters; that’s our new motto now” — and a drought of commentary from the front office until last week, when Jared Diamond supplied some clarity for the public record.

As for the messaging that they are all starters, “That’s what they are,” Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder told me when I spoke to him about the eight-starter strategy a week ago. “We just figured this could be a way that we could have an impact on the major league club sooner than we would have otherwise.”

But while the messaging externally took until the second week of the season to change, it was consistent internally: “The message was, ‘lets take the best guys that we have and figure out how we can best utilize them on a major league staff.’” Snyder explained.

In the midst of that messaging debacle, though, has been the fascinating audition for the Rays nominal fifth starter (as one fo the current reliever-starters will become whenever Nate Eovaldi returns from his elbow tuneup). And it’s that DL stay that pushes the competition timeline forward to probably mid-May.

Someone has to pitch on a regular rotation once the off-days run out in the early schedule, and as the Rays have rotated through the bullpen “starters” one name has stood out among the rest.

Yonny Chirinos

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Chicago White Sox Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Yonny Chirinos has been a breath of fresh air. Scoreless in three appearances and working up to an approx. 80-pitch count, here are his results thus far:

  • April 1: 4.0 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 1 K (56 pitches)
  • April 5: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 4 K (54)
  • April 11: 5.1 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 5 K (75)

In his first start he showed only a three-pitch mix, but in his second appearance Chirinos showcased an established four-seam fastball and a formidable split-change that both work off excellent two-seam stuff; and like most Rays pitchers, he can spin a slider too.

Curiously, the four-seamer was thrown seven times in his second outing of the year, then not at all in this third appearance. When asked, Snyder confirmed the decision to feature the four-seam fastball more in the second start was intentional, with the aim of giving hitters a different look, so the decision to hide it again must have been intentional as well in the third outing. Either way, Chirinos has four solid offerings and the results you want to see out of a major league regular.

The kid can pitch. It’s something ESPN has noticed, and something noted by David Laurilla at Fangraphs last Sunday, who featured Chirinos in a deep dive into his pitch mix:

Chirinos augments his mid-90s sinker with a slider that Kyle Snyder called “a swing and miss pitch that he’s also capable of finding the strike zone with.” The team’s first-year pitching coach added that the youngster can “change shapes and speeds with his slider,” making it even more effective.

That approach to the slider is major league intentionality that even the best slider-pitchers cannot boast, effectively making one pitch into two (not much unlike Archer).

And then there’s the dedication that he pairs with his natural talent. Snyder called Chirinos “probably the hardest-working guy I’ve been around as a pitching coach,” and while the youngster got early pitching tips from an uncle — Jesus Chirinos pitched in Venezuela and spent one season in the Brewers organization — he spoke humbly of how “God has given (him) the ability to pitch.”

That ability includes exemplary control. Chirinos walked barely over a batter per nine innings in the minors, and he’s begun his big-league career doing much the same. He is, as Cash and Snyder emphasized, a strike thrower.

With that strike throwing comes efficiency, and as Chirinos takes the mound tonight, this will be his opportunity to stake his claim on the open Rays rotation slot, because after today the Rays upcoming “bullpen days” offer a starting rotation’s regularity:

  • April 17 vs Matt Moore (in TB)
  • April 22 vs Jake Odorizzi (in TB)
  • April 27 vs Chris Sale (at BOS)
  • April 28 vs David Price (at BOS)
  • May 2 vs Mike Fiers (at DET)

Four of five bullpen days align to five days rest, and the first will be handed to Yonny Chirinos, including a start in Fenway where Chirinos and his two-seam stuff have already succeeded.

How he pitches may tonight may end the Rays rotation audition a month early.