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Rays bullpen injuries test depth

The Rays bullpen has been beset by injuries. Can the team win with the relievers remaining?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The first home stand came and went, and the Rays season didn’t kick off as expected. But then the Rays rallied to sweep the Yankees and are back to .500, and it’s clear fans shouldn’t be extremely worried. This team has real strengths.

At the moment, however, the bullpen has not been one of them.

Given the injuries, we should not be too surprised that this bullpen sometimes looks overmatched. Plenty of the team’s top relievers haven’t been healthy. We knew the team would be without Oliver Drake, Jalen Beeks and Colin Poche. We did not, however, expect it would also be without Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, Chaz Roe, and now Collin McHugh. Notably, there are only two relievers in the active roster that were part of the 2020 World Series: Ryan Thompson and Diego Castillo.

Overall, the team’s ERA is 4.39, which is below average this season, and the Rays relievers have a gaudy 5.16 ERA thus far, the fourth highest result in baseball. The bullpen seemingly has gone from one of the top performers in the league, to one of the worst, with the batting average against the Rays rocketing up to .245, the fourth highest in the American League.

Nonetheless, we need to remember that this team was built around depth, and that depth is starting to pay off. Of course all teams have depth on paper, but when injuries pile up, what quality can they expect when they really need to replace an entire bullpen’s worth of arms?

In the Rays case, “plan B” turns out to be reasonably good, and that’s why the many injuries have not been more problematic. Here are three examples of Rays pitchers who have been called upon to fill in.

Josh Fleming. Josh Fleming was called up from the alternate site to start last night’s game, and he turned in a terrific performance. You may wonder why we have him here as “bullpen depth” when he was called upon to start a game, but in fact his flexibility makes him an asset. He can be a starter, however he can work in the bulk role as well. Josh just needs to continue what he did last year, when he was stellar, thanks to a high level of consistency. (Hot take: if Josh Fleming stays on the major league roster, his performance will be strong enough for Rookie of the Year consideration).

Hunter Strickland. Strickland’s signing was a pure depth move. He was not going to be on the Opening Day roster (he had a minor league deal). However the front office signed him because at one point they knew he would be part of the bullpen. Hunter has provided a couple of quality innings with an acceptable 2.25 ERA, but that’s not the main reason why he has been important, he is valuable because he is covering for those injuries. That is exactly why depth is important.

Brent Honeywell. Sure, we all hope that Brent Honeywell will be more than mere “depth” down the road; if he stays healthy, he represents our future. We got just a taste of what he might be able to do in those two innings we saw, but most likely — with continued health, knock on wood — he will be a starter in the next few years. Honeywell will be a valuable piece for the Rays rotation, he will be valuable because he is not a regular hard throwing righty, he is more a pitcher that throws everything, and mixes his pitches well. Brent throws fastball, changeup, screwball, slider and curveball, all of this pitches give a different look. As he works his way back to a starting role, we’ve seen that he can add valuable bullpen depth.

On the bright side, the Rays are one of the better teams in strikeouts with 25.7 K%, ranking 11th in the majors. Some pitchers have been extremely effective. Tyler Glasnow, Diego Castillo, Cody Reed, Andrew Kittredge, Jeffrey Springs all with an ERA below 3.00. With all the struggles, the Rays pitching staff is still elite, one of the best in 2020, and in 2021 they are getting better as the time goes by. Eventually the injured players are going to return, and when you put them together with the young guys, and the current pitching staff, you should rally to be in 2020 form, and the finest staff in baseball. The fans shouldn’t be worried, because the stable is unhealthy, not broken!!!

The start of the season has had alarming moments for every Rays fans, but let’s remember: The season is long and we are still in April. This bullpen can compete, all because of the depth, even if they are not as sharp as last years. The Rays will need to find a way to win those close games without our stellar pitchers. If the Rays desire to compete they need to establish a winning environment. In conclusion, the Tampa Bay Rays must stay healthy, and convert the bullpen into 2020 form. If this team reaches its full potential, I wouldn’t doubt a deep playoff run.