In some ways the Tampa Bay Rays rotation will look different in 2021, but in some ways it will look very familiar. Blake Snell and Charlie Morton won’t return, but Chris Archer is returning in free agency along with Michael Wacha.
To make it through a season a team will need anywhere between 1,400-1,500 innings to complete 162 games. This year that will look to be a challenge for most teams coming off the short 2020 season and more importantly the lack of 2020 minor league season.
Major League Experience
The Rays have four experienced Major League pitchers that will provide some version of bulk innings. Glasnow has been in the majors since 2016, but his career high is 111.2 innings in 2018 when he split time between the bullpen with the Pirates and starting with the Rays after the trade.
Yarbrough threw 147.1 and 141.2 innings in 2018-19 with a mix of starts and after an Opener.
Archer provided the most consistent innings from 2014-17 where he threw 194.2+ innings each season. During that time period his 809.0 innings ranked sixth in the majors behind only Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Sale, and Johnny Cueto. In 2018-19 he found himself on the Injured List for the first time of his career and was only able to post 148.1 and 119.2 innings. He then missed the entire 2020 season after suffering from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. There isn’t much of a track record for pitchers returning from TOS. Alex Cobb is the most positive outcome late during his rookie year of 2011. The highest profile player was Matt Harvey who never returned to the dominant pitcher he was prior to surgery.
Wacha’s career high in innings was 181.1 back in 2015 with the St. Louis Cardinals. He only has two seasons in his career where he posted 150+ innings with the most recent coming in 2017.
Pitcher health is one of the most difficult things to plan around and this group of pitchers make it more difficult to even write down innings expectations in pencil.
Top 100 Arms on the 40 Man
The Rays boast one of the best collection of prospect arms in the league and many of them already find themselves on the 40 man roster. The Rays need to work through these arms in short order as they use up their remaining options while also being pushed by arms not yet on the 40 man roster.
These three pitchers are found on most top 100 lists you will find this winter and have already gotten a cup of coffee at the Major League level.
Patino just turned 21 and due to the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season it’s unknown how much work he was able to get at the Alternate Site. In games his career high in innings was in 2019 where he split 94.2 innings between A+ and AA. He made 11 appearances last season for the San Diego Padres in the one to two inning relief role.
McKay was diagnosed with COVID when he returned to Spring Training 2.0 and ultimately ended up having shoulder surgery that we don’t really have a lot of info about. It’s not thought to be a major surgery and more for cleaning out the area of discomfort, but there’s always some risk when you cut the body open. McKay’s career high for innings in a season is 2019 where he threw 122.0 innings between AA, AAA, and MLB. His 49.0 MLB innings were mostly solid but didn’t end up as bright as they started. The biggest question with McKay comes from when he could be available to throw in games. The expectations could be anywhere from April to July should things go as scheduled.
McClanahan got his cup of coffee for the Rays in the playoffs. He was added to the playoff roster and used as a low leverage arm. In 2019 McClanahan amassed 120.2 innings split between A, A+, and AA.
Lesser Heralded Arms with MLB Experience
When an epidemic of Tommy John Surgeries hit the Rays rotation in 2020 Fleming stepped up and put up good results. In 32.1 innings he put up a 2.78 ERA/4.40 FIP/3.70 xFIP. He continued to do what he had done in the minors. In 2019 he threw 148.2 innings.
Richards threw well for the Miami Marlins in 2018-19 before being part of the Nick Anderson trade. Since the trade he has been used as a sixth starter. He is out of options. In 2019 he threw 135.1 MLB innings.
40 Man Arms with Question Marks
Brent Honeywell Jr.
Once upon a time Honeywell Jr. was one of the best pitching prospects in the game. It seems like an eternity ago as due to multiple surgeries including Tommy John he hasn’t thrown a pitch in a game situation since 2017. He received a fourth option year so I really hope to see him throw in a game. If the stuff returns he could be an option or he could be designated for assignment. I hope he at least gets a spot start to show what he still has.
Strotman was added to the 40 man this winter. He hasn’t thrown in a game since undergoing Tommy John surgery, but reports from winter instructs had his stuff improving from when he was last on a mound. He’s the furthest away from being MLB ready of the pitchers on the 40 man roster, so it would likely take a lot of dominos to fall before he became a real option.
How do the Rays get to 1400-1500 innings?
1400-1500 innings is what it takes to get through a full 162 game season.
At first glance it looks like it’s hard to expect any single pitcher to even get to 150 innings in 2021. Glasnow and Yarbrough are projected for just over 150 innings.
This would seem like a major concern, but coming off the short 2020 with no minor league season it’s impossible for teams to feel very confident in where their innings will come from. However if any team should feel comfortable being uncomfortable it is the Rays.
In 2018 and 2019 the Rays only had one pitcher throw more than 150 innings in each season. Snell threw 180.2 in 2018 and Morton threw 194.2 in 2019. Yarbrough came in just shy of 150 in both seasons but no other pitcher threw more than Yonny Chirinos’s 133.1 innings in 2019.
Kevin Cash and Kyle Snyder have become experts in balancing the innings workload of the entire roster. In 2021 the Rays will rely on the bullpen to cover a lot of innings just like they have in 2018-20.
The Rays have a ton of depth even if there isn’t any single pitcher expected to provide a lot of volume of innings. Glasnow, Yarbrough, Archer, and Wacha should give the Rays a solid start with the fifth starter coming down to a Spring Training battle likely between Fleming and Patino.
The Rays have been diligent when it comes to checking in on veteran depth. After agreeing to terms with Archer it’s unclear whether they are set or they could look to add another arm. Unless it’s a high quality arm I’m not sure how it helps, but there has been talk that the Rays are still on the lookout for arms.
I want to see Patino and McKay get every Major League inning they can handle as this team pushes to see who is ready to step into full time roles in the coming seasons. Another rotation addition that couldn’t slot into the bullpen just as easily overcomplicates what the Rays need to prioritize.