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That new Rays pitching plan? There’s lots to talk (and wonder) about

By Marc Topkin
Published: March 8, 2018 Updated: March 9, 2018 at 01:04 AM
Ryan Yarbrough is one of the young starters in the running for a multi-inning relief job. [Times files]

FORT MYERS — Revelation of the Rays' preferred plan to run their pitching staff with only four starters and multiple multi-inning relievers sparked plenty of follow-up conversation Thursday — in and outside the game.

"I had a couple neighbors call me," manager Kevin Cash relayed, "and tell me that they had a fifth starter if we needed one."

But seriously … the Rays are quite serious about this. Confident — but not convinced — this plan can work. Acknowledging they'll be figuring much of it out as they go through the first month-plus with a more conducive off-day heavy schedule.

"On paper, it looks like it can be managed," Cash said. "Now we'll find out. … We're going to learn a lot in six weeks."

Here are a half-dozen of many points to consider:

Duty calls: Keeping track of who is available, and making sure to not over-use anyone, will be a massive task for Cash, new pitching coach Kyle Snyder and the data team, even with the benefit of the extra eighth reliever. "It is going to be a lot on our plate to manage," Snyder said, "and I think we're excited about the challenge."

The plan is to have four capable of working two to four innings, roughly up to 50 to 60 pitches, then getting two or three days to recover (and also to have options to be sent down and replaced by a fresh arm). Then three of their other four — from a group led by Sergio Romo, out-of-options Chaz Roe and maybe either Jose Alvarado or Dan Jennings — will be available to be used for one-plus inning work and expected to be available on shorter rest. Closer Alex Colome primarily will work one inning, but occasionally extended.

And when they do have that fifth game to cover, to plan ahead to make sure they have enough innings available, or to adjust to make a call up.
It's not all that different from how Snyder operated last year at Triple-A due to all the pitchers going up and down.

Scheduling: The plan seems workable during the first six weeks of the season, when the Rays have eight open dates in a 38-day span and play as many as five straight days only four times. But not so much over the next six weeks, as they have stretches of 10, 13 and 16 straight games, 39 total in 41 days, making more acute the need for an actual fifth starter.

Warming up: Snyder makes a point in discussing the plan for the "bullpen days" to refer to the pitcher who "begins" the game rather than "starts." That seems a subtle way to change not just the verbiage but the mindset of the relievers who will get those assignments but still will be limited to working the first two-four innings.

"You'll begin the game, but you'll begin the game in the same role you've been in," Snyder said. "The mentality has to remain the same whether they're beginning the game or pitching in the middle of the game or ultimately the end."

Plus, there is a practical application, as the pitchers have to show they are just as comfortable warming up in the bullpen on short notice as when they get 40 minutes to prepare on the field pre-game.

Innings reallocation: Getting beyond the base explanation of wanting to take advantage of having so many good young pitchers and not leave them to languish in Triple-A, the real reason the Rays are doing this is to maximize the efficiency of the innings pitched.

Simply, to have more pitchers throw more innings facing lineups one or two times when they are better positioned to have success, and fewer innings against a lineup for a third or fourth time when they are likely to struggle.

Also, to force some teams to make pinch-hitting decisions earlier in games if the Rays switch handedness.

Money ball: Getting young starters to buy into relief duty, especially those who might not otherwise be in the majors, should be easy. But it may be more of a challenge with more veteran pitchers who know that historically starters get paid. Matt Andriese, for example, could have an interesting first-time arbitration case explaining how vital the team told him those middle innings appearances were.

A matter of trust: Determining who is best suited for the multi-inning duty is top priority with less than three weeks until the March 29 opener. Cash said a key factor will be resiliency, how many days a pitcher — who is used to starting — needs to be ready to go again. That said, it's easy to see a young guy, with a chance to make it to the majors, pushing himself now.

The Rays have to trust that they're being honest, and not risking future injury for short-term gain.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.