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The Rays pitching rotation status: it’s complicated

The Rays will use a sixth man tonight. Here’s why.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles - Game One Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Coming into the second half of the season, the Rays had some interesting pitching rotation decisions to make. In particular, they needed to figure out how to best use their three marquee names: Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and prospect Brendan McKay.

The first decision was to give 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell extra rest. After the All-Star break he was moved down to fifth in the rotation, which gave him another four days off, and more importantly guaranteed him a slot against the Yankees in New York this week.

Morton, in contrast, might have been expected to get the extra rest, as he’s been the Rays biggest innings eater thus far. Instead he pitched on Saturday, picking up his eleventh credited win on the season (only renaissance man Lance Lynn with the Rangers has twelve).

Meanwhile, the Rays wisely “optioned” Brendan McKay after his major league debut and re-called the player as the 26th man for Saturday’s double header.

The roster move looked like the typical demotion following a prospect’s spot start in the majors, but thanks to the All-Star break and the scheduled double header in Baltimore, he was able to depart the 25-man roster for the 10 day minimum without missing a start, allowing the Rays to promote an extra pitcher to bolster the tired bullpen late in the first half.

In other words, the rocket ship McKay’s riding continues on course for the moon.

But for all that he brings to the team, McKay, who has been pitching on a six (rather than the usual five) day schedule, brings complications. Assuming that the Rays would not use this moment to intensify McKay’s work schedule, they must figure out how to work a guy into the rotation whose schedule departs from the norm.

And then there are the rest of the pitchers to consider: Friday’s starter Yonny Chirinos, yesterday’s nearly-perfect Ryan Yarbrough, the deceptive Jalen Beeks, and the pitchers returning from Tommy John (Jose De Leon and Anthony Banda).

So, how will this shake out? Can Tampa Bay shoehorn a sixth guy into a five man rotation?

This can work if the Rays (and the pitchers involved) are creative and flexible. There will be inevitably be days to come when McKay can’t be slotted into a start without throwing other pitchers off schedule; he may need to pitch in relief to stay the course when Snell or Morton’s fifth day overlaps with his sixth.

There are other alternatives. Tampa Bay could try stretching six into seven or eight days for fewer conflicts, but various off-days in the second half will complicate things further. McKay could pitch a side session when his sixth day occurs, but that would waste bullets. The Rays could also option McKay again for some R&R when the scheduling gets tough, but that’s a bit hard to predict.

With that in mind, below I project the schedule assuming McKay will pitch in relief.

It looks like there will be at least four games where two pitchers in the rotation overlap with McKay: July 26 (Yarbrough), Aug 1 (Snell), Aug 25 (Morton), and Sept 18 (Chirinos). To keep the six-day rotation rolling, McKay will need to pitch in relief (or in Yarbrough’s case be his opener?) to stay locked in.

The result is 15 appearances for Snell, Morton, and Chirinos as traditional starters, and 13 for McKay in the second half. It’s a fool’s errand to be projecting September, but for the sake of this exercise, it’s interesting to see that the Rays can spread Morton well across AL East appearances with the pitching as set.

It’s not clear where the pitchers recovering from injury would fit into this mix, but it’s possible a bullpen role would suffice if De Leon, Banda, or Glasnow show a major league ready return to form late in the season.

What amazed me in penciling the rotation was the lack of need for bullpen days or bulk guys, only five in total, with Beeks anticipated tonight.

Ten off days do wonders for a difficult pitching rotation.

This is, of course, a projection based on current information. Injuries, rain-outs and blowouts can all push the Rays off this schedule. But the projection shows that the Rays, who are not afraid to tinker with pitcher roles and rotations, can incorporate a promising pitcher who needs a bit more recovery time. If Brendan McKay remains Mr. McK, finding ways to put him regularly on the mound without cutting into pitching time for folks like Morton and Snell will be to the benefit of the contending 2019 Rays.