Entering play on Thursday, the Tampa Bay Rays rotation was unrecognizable from the one that was on display in last year’s World Series. Without Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow, the only remaining starters were Josh Fleming and Ryan Yarbrough.
Currently only Fleming remains as Ryan Yarbrough has landed on the Covid-IL. That leaves the starting rotation looking something like this when Yarbs is healthy,
Shane McClanahan, Luis Patiño, Ryan Yarbrough, Michael Wacha, and TBD.
McClanahan, a rookie, has been good and will continue to improve with experience. Patiño, who is only twenty-one, has electric stuff and is on the cusp of putting everything together. Ryan Yarbrough, the finesse southpaw who sometimes forgets the finesse, but has been serviceable. Michael Wacha, another veteran, has been nothing to write home about, but a prototypical backend starter nonetheless.
Looking at this group, can we say that the starting rotation, as is, will be one that can take the team through October? Dominant and electric outings from McClanahan and Patiño are not out of the question, and at times could be expected. But, such outings from Ryan Yarbrough and Michael Wacha are rarer.
What’s a contending team to do?
***Cue Drew Rasmussen.
On Thursday, Drew Rasmussen made his first career Major League start against the Boston Red Sox and tossed a very effective four innings. He attacked with a high octane fastball, topping out at 99 mph. He induced weak contact with a sharp slider. He walked two, struck out four, and surrendered just one run to the same offense that scored ten runs off of starter Josh Fleming the night prior.
When Yarbrough returns, the Rays will have four consistent starters. Josh Fleming may be considered the fifth starter, but likely behind an opener. At any given point, the Rays could have three true starters (McClanahan, Patiño, Wacha), and two bulk starters (Yarborough, Fleming).
This is not an attempt to jump to conclusions after one good outing from Rasmussen and say that he deserves a spot in the rotation. But stuffwise he merits careful consideration for at least a “starter adjacent” role.
What does that role look like?
This is a bit more complicated than it may appear at first glance. Rasmussen’s work load this season will be monitored no differently than any other following the shortened 2020 season.
Across three minor league levels in 2019, he threw 74.1 innings across 27 appearances (23 starts). Last season with the Brewers he threw just 15.1 innings, all in relief. This season, with his most recent start included, he has already thrown 54.1 innings with the Brewers, Rays, and in Triple-A.
With this in mind, I would assume that the Rays do not want to push him too far past his 2019 innings amount. In fact they may not want him to pass it at all. However, if they do want to work him past 74.1 innings, then 100 innings is likely the absolute most he will throw this year.
As a result, Kevin Cash probably has anywhere from 30-45 innings left out of Rasmussen this season.
If they were to stretch him to a traditional starter’s role, these 30-45 innings would quickly evaporate by the middle of September. If they used him in a way that mirrored what he did on Thursday against the Red Sox, they could get creative down the stretch and into October.
Earlier in the year, the Rays tried to “piggy-back” Michael Wacha and Rich Hill, and the same could be the case now with Drew Rasmussen. Rather than working as a traditional opener and getting anywhere from three to six outs, Rasmussen could work as a “Hybrid-Opener” and secure anywhere from nine to twelve outs.
While the idea of piggy backing Yarbrough and Rasmussen may be appealing at first glance, it is unlikely to happen. Depending on Yarbrough’s ability to eat innings and work as a traditional starter is a necessary evil this season with an already depleted rotation. That is not to say that he wouldn't be used behind an opener or a hybrid-opener in October, but for the remaining month and a half, the Rays need him to start and consistently eat five to seven innings.
But, a hybrid piggy-backing of Rasmussen and Fleming may be more fruitful for Kevin Cash and the Rays.
If the Rays can get four innings from Rasmussen prior to Fleming, this allows time for Kevin Cash to decide how to further use his bullpen. If after four innings, the Rays have built a lead, one that Fleming can maintain, Kevin Cash can sit back and look for Fleming to get he final fifteen outs. He could also aggressively use his “A-Bullpen” for the final there to six outs if the outcome is in question, thus limiting Fleming to three innings of work.
With a starting rotation that includes Yarbrough, Wacha, and Rasmussen/Fleming, the bullpen will be under constant stress as it has all year. In any given five game stretch, Cash may have to dip into his “A-Bullpen” on back to back nights when Yarbrough and Wacha start. A hybrid piggy-backing of Rasmussen and Fleming could alleviate some of the pressure on the bullpen every fifth day as the rotation turns back over to McClanahan and Patiño.
If the Rays can consistently get seven to nine innings from the duo of Rasmussen and Fleming every fifth day, the bullpen can reset. Of course, consistency is fleeting in baseball, but nonetheless the Rays may as well try to hedge their bets down the stretch.
So while Drew Rasmussen will likely not find himself starting every fifth day and working into the sixth or seventh inning, he could very well be just what this depleted rotation needs down the stretch. And, if he pitches anything like he did on Thursday against the Red Sox, it will be a breath of fresh air.