The American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays are 18-15, which is good for second place in the tight AL East standings, and they’ve gotten there behind myriad arms that cloud what is surprisingly a traditional rotation.
Nailing down the Rays rotation will be a moving target all season, but not for the reasons you’d might expect. This is a transition year in Tampa Bay due to the wealth of prospects preparing for the majors, but also a transition year in terms of health. The Rays signed many one-year deals for injured veterans, and coming off a season in which games didn’t happen, all pitchers are on the precipice of injury.
To best avoid injuries, the vast majority of pitchers are throwing smaller shares and the Rays are mixing and matching opener and bulk roles from week to week, but injuries are occurring nonetheless.
Of the Opening Week’s front five, two are currently on the injured list in veterans Chris Archer (1 start in 2 appearances; arm) and Michael Wacha (4 starts in 6 appearances; hamstring), as is three-year veteran of the rotation Yonny Chirinos, who required Tommy John surgery after just three starts into the 2020 season.
When Michael Wacha was placed on the injured list, the Rays did receive back from a back injury Collin McHugh, another veteran on a one-year deal, and his return to the Rays was dazzling, including 5 strikeouts in six batters against the Angels as the starter/opener.
Collin McHugh, K'ing the Side. pic.twitter.com/VbgIEKt5fL— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 7, 2021
That video includes swinging strikeouts of Ohtani and Trout, and that performance set up Josh Fleming for success as the Rays swept the Angels, while deploying a rotational starter in a Bulk role.
Having pitchers in Opener/Bulk roles complicates who and what a rotation is at any given time, particularly as the Rays have also simply doubled up their starters on occasion to get two pitchers four quality innings in a night.
So to simplify where the Rays are at, here’s a breakdown of what the Rays rotation is anchored by, including some projected appearances for the coming week in parentheses. (Note: The Rays have an off-day on May 10,)
No. 1 - RHP Tyler Glasnow (May 8)
Mr. Good Hair is quickly becoming the star of the 2021 Rays, shining in podcast appearances as often as he does on the mound. His ascension to one of baseball’s best pitchers has come with the development of a hard-slider.
Tyler Glasnow, 89mph Slider and 96mph Fastball, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/31e5slWMZ9— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 4, 2021
The results of his first seven appearances on the season is a 2.06 ERA/2.28 FIP/2.39 xFIP with a tied-for-major-league-best four wins credited and a nearly 30% K-BB rate. Recently, Glasnow has begun to dial in his curveball as well.
Tyler Glasnow, 99mph Fastball and 88mph Breaking Ball, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/0wHjMuf4Gd— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 4, 2021
Tyler Glasnow is simply must-see-TV.
No. 2 - LHP Shane McClanahan (May 9)
The Rays have two potential star pitching prospects that have joined the roster in recent weeks: LHP Shane McClanahan and RHP Luis Patiño. Both have electric fastballs — Patiño even goes by the nickname El Electrio — and both are maybe not stretched out to a full starting workload yet.
Two turns through the rotation, McClanahan (who became the first pitcher ever to make his major league debut during the playoffs) has gone first and also gone longer (4.0 IP), while Patiño has followed with 2.0-3.0 innings in relief. He has also made one additional appearance as an Opener this season.
What comes of this slot moving forward?
If McClanahan continues to only be at 4.0 innings per outing, it would not be surprising to see an Opener jump ahead of him when facing highly rated offenses, but he’ll get the opportunity to continue pitching every fifth day. Perhaps that Opener could be Patiño, but it’s not clear the Rays see his role in this crowded pitching landscape as a starter just yet.
As a 21-year old adjusting to pitching in the majors, continuing to pitch in brief outings as an Opener or piggyback Bulk guy may be more ideal for Luis Patiño’s development in the short term; such a role could also allow Patiño to begin getting reps every fourth day instead of waiting for a fifth day on a starter’s traditional preparation schedule.
With the minor leagues open again, the Rays could choose to prioritize stretching Patiño back out from the relief role the Padres gave him in 2020, but that would likely mean optioning the exciting young arm back to the minors.
For now, this slot in the rotation is McClanahan’s, while the approach with Patiño appears to be something we should learn rather quickly.
No. 3 - Opener + LHP Ryan Yarbrough (May 11)
In a small sample size, the Rays pitcher who pioneered the Bulk role behind an Opener in 2018 may be returning to that role in 2021. Across seven appearances this season, Yarbrough has allowed 17 runs across four appearances as a starter, but only 2 runs across three appearances in relief of an Opener.
In his career dating back to 2018, Yarbrough has curiously been essentially the same pitcher in Starting and Bulk roles with one exception: Earned Runs.
Starter: 183.2 IP, 18.8% K, 4.4% BB, .301 wOBA allowed, 4.61 ERA/3.80 FIP/4.34 xFIP
Reliever: 198.1 IP, 21.2% K, 6.8% BB, .295 wOBA allowed, 3.45 ERA/3.82 FIP/4.33 xFIP
(h/t JT Morgan)
That difference in 1.16 earned runs has been exacerbated in 2021, but was not as pronounced before this season, but with the wealth of multi-inning pitching options available to the Rays this year, it seems like a right handed opener like McHugh, Archer, or Andrew Kittredge (who has made 2 starts this season as an Opener) is likely to continue.
Early season struggles as a starter aside, Yarbrough remains one of the best in baseball in limiting hard contact, ranking in the 97th percentile in HardHit% and Average Exit Velocity.
No. 4 - Opener + LHP Josh Fleming (May 12)
The short description of who Josh Fleming is has been “Ryan Yarbrough with a sinking fastball” and like Yarbrough his approach trades strikeouts for limiting hard contact, although not to the same extreme.
In his sophomore season Fleming has made five appearances and has replicated his above average ERA (2.81 vs 2.78 in 2020) and groundball rate (57.9% vs 63.5%). He has been handed three starts with similar results in the small sample size split as well.
Whether he is handed an Opener may more simply be a reflection of the Rays needs to get other pitchers into the mix on a given day than a reflection of Fleming’s abilities. And in either circumstance, the fourth day in the rotation is currently his.
No. 5 - LHP Rich Hill + Bulk Guy (May 7, 13)
What the Rays will get out of Rich Hill in the near and long term of this season is one of the more interesting stories to follow this season. The 41-year old Hill can still spin a wicked curveball, but he has yet to live up to his elite promise with a 6.39 ERA in 6 appearances this season.
Over these early weeks, Hill has gone 4.0, 6.0, 4.1, 2.0, 6.0, and 3.0 innings, and allowed four runs in each of his first four starts of the year, but his most recent outing was scoreless, albeit with only 11 batters faced.
What are we to make of Rich Hill? Are the wheels falling off? Or is he better suited to an Opener’s role? If Wacha were still in full health, it seems likely that Hill would be followed by the resurgent righty as a Bulk guy, but his unexpected trip to the injured list has thwarted that plan for the time being.
Instead the Rays will probably need to lean on Kittredge and Ryan Thompson for innings tonight. If the Rays need length from the minors, Chris Mazza (10-day IL), Trevor Richards, Brent Honeywell Jr., or Drew Strotman could all be options for long relief in the month ahead, as could Joe Ryan if the Rays add him to the 40-man roster.