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How the Rays pitching plans fell apart

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As Yonny Chirinos is lost to injury we are reminded: you can never have too much pitching

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

You can never have too much pitching.

Sure, a typical team has five starters and maybe seven relievers on the roster at any given time. But throwing a baseball so that it dips and dives while travelling 90+ miles per hour is apparently hard on the arm; pitchers are injury prone. Indeed, the pitcher who consistently makes it through a 162 game season without an IL stint is probably the outlier.

Baseball teams, then, need far more major league arms to get through a season than can fit on a major league roster at any given time. The 2019 Rays have certainly needed to draw on their pitching depth thus far, and they will be tested further as the season draws to a close.

It’s worth noting that the Rays pitching staff leads the American League in ERA, and all of baseball in FIP, and xFIP (although they’ve fallen off the all-time leaderboard position that they held earlier in the year), so what they’ve done on the pitching mound has worked. It’s also worth noting that the plan this season for the Rays has been about rolling work away from the starters and to the bullpen. But that doesn’t mean that the Rays have abandoned the idea of a rotation, or that they don’t need quality arms to fill one out.

The following is a timeline of the 2019 season, and of how the Rays have filled out their rotation.

Plan A: The Three Aces

The Rays started out the season with a three-headed monster in the form of Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow. These are really good pitchers, and had they all remained healthy, it’s possible to imagine them as co-favorites for the American League Cy Young award.

Following those three were Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough, who often started behind an opener. One thing that has tended to get lost, at least among casual fans and sloppy pundits who simply glanced over a depth chart, is that Chirinos and Yarbrough are good pitchers. They’re legit starters. The Opener Strategy doesn’t do away with starters. It just changes when they enter the game. I’m noting that they followed an opener here, but going forward I’ll leave that off, because, it doesn’t matter when talking about innings load.

The Rays structured their bullpen to be able to pick up the innings after the starters were pulled early. Jalen Beeks began the season in relief, but available to pitch several innings on one day, and one high-leverage inning a few days later. It’s the traditional swingman long-relief role, except that the Rays made it an integral part of their pitching strategy, not a way to sop up unimportant innings in mop-up duty.

Also starting the season in the bullpen was Wilmer Font, an erstwhile starter trying to come back from a core injury. He struggled in Spring Training, but with no options remaining the Rays had no choice but to give him a 25-man roster spot and let him attempt to work things out at the major league level. Font could go multiple innings, but, unlike Beeks, they didn’t want to give him important ones. At least not at the start.

Finally, there was always the possibility of a bullpen day. When pitchers are rested, and the ‘pen is ready to go, using five or six pitchers to cover nine innings becomes a valid and competitive strategy, and often a better one than asking fifth starter to stretch himself over 5+.

Beyond the 25-man roster, the Rays had plenty of depth available in Durham, or expected to become available at some point. Austin Pruitt and Jacob Faria were the swingmen next in line after Beeks and Font. Prospects Brent Honeywell, Anthony Banda, and Jose De Leon, all were aiming for a return at some point, and all had the possibility of establishing themselves as a legitimate high-quality starting pitcher. And Brendan McKay, still in Double-A, was a fast-climber through the system, who would probably have made it to Triple-A last year if he wasn’t giving pro baseball a go as a two-way player.

After those four prospects, the Rays packed their Durham roster with pitchers who, while their upside might have been limited, either had MLB experience or a decent chance of being a second-division major-league player.

Overall this was a strong unit, with an unbelievable high end, decent short-term depth, exciting reinforcements expected to arrive midseason, and minor league veterans held in reserve.

The Rotation
Blake Snell
Charlie Morton
Tyler Glasnow
Yonny Chirinos (after an opener)
Ryan Yarbrough (after an opener)
—————————
MLB Innings Coverage
Jalen Beeks
Wilmer Font
The Bullpen Day
—————————
40-Man Coverage
Austin Pruitt
Jacob Faria
Brent Honeywell (returning from TJS)
Anthony Banda (returning from TJS)
Jose De Leon (returning from (TJS)
Brendan McKay (in Double-A)
—————————
In Case Of Emergency
Luis Santos
Ryan Merritt
Aaron Sledgers
Ricardo Pinto
Arturo Reyes

Plan B: Broken Glasnow

A series of setbacks befell the Rays rotation in the first half of the season, starting with Blake Snell dropping a piece of granite on his foot.

Snell returned quickly, but his early season rhythm was disturbed (a broken toe can do that), and he was both less effective and able to shoulder fewer innings.

More impactful than Snell’s brief dance with the granite, on May 10 Tyler Glasnow removed himself from a game vs. the Yankees with what turned out to be a forearm strain. At the time of the injury, Glasnow was leading American League starters in ERA. In a bit of irony, the Rays quit trying to make Font work, just a matter of days before Glasnow went down.

The original prognosis for Glasnow was 4-6 weeks (although pessimists/realists had their doubts), and at the time we wrote about internal and external replacements. The Rays chose the internal route, stretching out Beeks to take over a rotation spot and calling up Pruitt from Durham.

For about two weeks after the Glasnow injury, the schedule helped, giving three off-days in quick succession, but starting on May 21 the Rays entered the most grueling period any major league team has had to face this year, with 48 games in 49 days, including one double header and two off days before the All-Star break.

On May 26, the Rays promoted McKay to Triple-A, both on his own merits and to get him prepared to pitch in the majors, because they were going to need him. But on June 8, they received the bad news that Brent Honeywell had fractured a bone in his elbow, and would not be available to pitch this season.

The below rotation is how the Rays entered their busy stretch. Faria was truly available, and he pitched MLB innings in both June and July. Anthony Banda and Jose De Leon continued to work their way through the rehab process, and would hopefully become available later in the season.

In a minor league move, the Rays signed Vidal Nuno.

The Rotation
Blake Snell
Charlie Morton
Yonny Chirinos
Ryan Yarbrough
Jalen Beeks
————————
MLB Innings Coverage
Austin Pruitt
The Bullpen Day
—————————
40-Man Coverage
Jacob Faria
Brendan McKay
Tyler Glasnow (out 4-6 weeks)
Anthony Banda (returning from TJS)
Jose De Leon (returning from TJS)
—————————
In Case Of Emergency
Luis Santos
Ryan Merritt
Aaron Sledgers
Ricardo Pinto
Arturo Reyes
Vidal Nuno (he’s back!)

Plan C: The Callup

The third pitching configuration was actually a straight improvement on Plan B, not another instance of bad news. Two-way prospect Brendan McKay excelled on the mound at the Triple-A level, and the Rays made the decision to call him up for his pitching, even though his hitting wasn’t yet at the level necessary for a MLB DH.

McKay made his major league debut on June 29, and it was a good one.

The difficulty, though, was that in an attempt to control his innings and to lessen the pressure on his body as he worked out as both a hitter and a pitcher, the Rays had set McKay on a six-day rotation. Now that he was in the major leagues, they wanted him to keep that same pattern going. Having four pitchers pitch every five days while one pitches every six days, while giving the best pitchers (Snell and Morton) the most possible starts and also making sure everyone gets regular work was hard. Danny tried to make it work on the calendar, but the Rays elected instead to bounce McKay up and down between Durham and St. Pete throughout the month of July, filling in with Beeks, Pruitt, and Faria as required.

On July 15 it was announced that Tyler Glasnow had suffered a setback and would be shut down again. The 4-6 week timeline was out the window, anything more he could offer for the 2019 season would be a September bonus.

The Rotation
Blake Snell
Charlie Morton
Brendan McKay
Yonny Chirinos
Ryan Yarbrough
————————
MLB Innings Coverage
Jalen Beeks
The Bullpen Day
—————————
40-Man Coverage
Austin Pruitt
Jacob Faria
Anthony Banda (still rehabbing)
Jose De Leon (still rehabbing)
—————————
In Case Of Emergency
Luis Santos
Ryan Merritt
Aaron Sledgers
Ricardo Pinto
Arturo Reyes
Vidal Nuno

Plan D: And Then There Was One (Ace)

The tired Rays limped into the All-Star break, but the schedule didn’t immediately let up, as they then needed to play 15 games in 13 days. Then, just as they reached the daylight portion of their schedule, where regular off days would resume, a bombshell hit.

The off days meant that McKay could fit more comfortably into the big league rotation. The injury meant that Beeks would have to stay in that rotation.

The Rotation
Charlie Morton
Brendan McKay
Yonny Chirinos
Ryan Yarbrough
Jalen Beeks
————————
MLB Innings Coverage
Austin Pruitt
The Bullpen Day
—————————
40-Man Coverage
Jacob Faria
Anthony Banda (still rehabbing)
Jose De Leon (still rehabbing)
—————————
In Case Of Emergency
Luis Santos
Ryan Merritt
Aaron Sledgers
Ricardo Pinto
Arturo Reyes
Vidal Nuno

Plan E: The Trading Deadline

At the trading deadline, consensus was that the Rays had three entries on their wishlist.

  1. Acquire a big right-handed bat.
  2. Improve the bullpen that’d been asked to do so much.
  3. Improve the rotation, particularly that fifth slot, where Beeks was still being forced to turn over a lineup more times than he maybe should.

They hit everything on that list, but at a real cost, both in prospects, and in major league depth. First, they traded Faria for first baseman Jesus Aguilar. Faria, though only intermittently effective this year, had been the next man up after Pruitt when the Rays needed an extra long arm. Then they traded an injured Ryne Stanek and hitting prospect Jesus Sanchez for high-leverage short reliever Nick Anderson and starter Trevor Richards.

Anderson is purely a one-inning arm, so that shortened the bullpen. But Richards is a starter, and while not one with eye-popping numbers, he fit the bill for the Rays problem of the moment—how do you push Beeks back into a relief swing role, where he’s able to excel? You get another pitcher who’s not that different than him, and they share the role.

That was going to happen, just as soon as Richards stretched back out, in a week or two from now.

The Rotation
Charlie Morton
Brendan McKay
Yonny Chirinos
Ryan Yarbrough
Trevor Richards
————————
MLB Innings Coverage
Jalen Beeks
The Bullpen Day
—————————
40-Man Coverage
Austin Pruitt
Anthony Banda (¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
Jose De Leon (¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
—————————
In Case Of Emergency
Luis Santos
Ryan Merritt
Aaron Sledgers
Ricardo Pinto
Arturo Reyes
Vidal Nuno

Plan D: Wee, Sleekit, Cow’rin, Tim’rous Beastie

Welp.

Here we are. I have Trevor Richards penciled into the rotation, but he’s not actually there yet, having thrown 28 pitches over one inning of work in Durham a few days ago. But the Rays need him to be ready soon, because on August 5, Yonny Chirinos went on the IL with finger inflammation. That means that in reality, until Richards is ready, it’s Beeks and Pruitt in the rotation, with no real swing man to pick up innings as needed.

Moreover, with the trade deadline condensed into a single date at the end of July, there’s no way to go outside of the organization for major league help. Players on minor league deals can still be traded, but there aren’t a lot of MLB-caliber starters hanging out in the minors at this point of the season. Really, if help is going to come, it’s going to be from Banda or De Leon succeeding in working themselves back to major league readiness.

If the returns of Snell, Glasnow, and Chirinos are delayed beyond the end of the season, and if there’s one more injury, then it’s a literal emergency, and time to break the glass. Meaning that the Rays will need to promote someone not already on the 40-man roster, and count on them for meaningful, season-making or season-breaking innings.

That’s a rough proposition. Before the season, I thought that Santos, Merritt, and Sledgers were all pitchers with a chance of being major-league useful this season, but none of them have had good seasons in Durham (although, to be fair, very few pitchers have put up good numbers in Triple-A this season, with the new, live, MLB ball). I’d still probably give Santos the first shot if things got really dire. Ricardo Pinto, for his part, was just part of a combined no-hitter, and may be the most exciting option for Rays fans.

And Vidal Nuno did okay last year.

The Rotation
Charlie Morton
Brendan McKay
Ryan Yarbrough
Trevor Richards
Jalen Beeks
————————
MLB Innings Coverage
Austin Pruitt
The Bullpen Day
—————————
40-Man Coverage
Anthony Banda (¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
Jose De Leon (¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
—————————
In Case Of Emergency
Luis Santos
Ryan Merritt
Aaron Sledgers
Ricardo Pinto
Arturo Reyes
Vidal Nuno

Plan E: We Hope Not

We really hope not.