Steady relief: Rays use bullpen in place of No 4 starter
By RONALD BLUM
Apr. 05, 2018
NEW YORK (AP) — The Tampa Bay Rays have an ambidextrous No. 4 starting pitcher: Mr. TBD.
His repertoire changes from outing to outing, along with his age and name. With an 0-1 record this season, he takes the mound Thursday at Boston and goes again Sunday.
Rejecting baseball tradition, the Rays plan to regularly use relievers on short notice to combine for a turn in their starting rotation.
"I think we would all agree that it's challenging for young pitchers to come and expect the seven innings, 105, 110 pitches, out of every start for them," manager Kevin Cash said. "So if we shorten the workload and if we've got an abundance of those guys that are capable of doing that, in theory we believe, I believe, that we can get more out of those guys."
Chris Archer heads a staff that includes Blake Snell and Jake Faria. Nathan Eovaldi was to be the fourth starter before reinjuring his pitching elbow, and the Rays developed the bullpen plan knowing they didn't need a fifth starter very often early in the season because they were scheduled for seven off days in the first six weeks.
Tampa Bay has struggled, losing five straight since an opening-day win. With the Rays down to three starters, the abnormal arrangement attracted even more scrutiny.
"The game is changing, evolving. You've got to be open to it," Seattle manager Scott Servais said. "Other clubs are looking at six-man rotations."
Cash waits until the end of the previous day's game to announce which reliever will open, wanting to gauge usage first. After he makes his decision, he calls or texts the next day's opposing manager as a courtesy.
Andrew Kittredge started last Saturday against Boston, lasting 57 pitches and 3 1/3 innings. He allowed two runs, one earned, and took the loss in a 3-2 defeat.
Austin Pruitt was to have started Tuesday's game at the New York Yankees but snow led to a postponement that caused Cash to recalculate. Yonny Chirinos will start Thursday at the Red Sox, and left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, Kittredge or Pruitt could get Sunday's start at Fenway Park.
"It kind of remains to be seen how well it's going to go," said Kittredge, a 28-year-old right-hander who made his big league debut last July. "If it works out, other teams might take notice and say, you know, hey, we've got two or three relievers that we think might be able to piece a game together better than fifth starters that might work. Or maybe it doesn't work and maybe it doesn't change anything and maybe we switch it after six weeks or so and go back to more of a traditional five-man rotation."
Cash rejects the notion these pitchers are somehow apprentice starters.
"I've never said you're going to be a beginning pitcher. They're starting the game as far as I'm concerned," he said.
Pruitt won last week's opener against the Red Sox, following Archer with two innings of scoreless relief. He followed Archer again Tuesday and gave up six runs — five earned — over 2 1/3 innings in an 11-4 loss.
"There absolutely is a difference between starting and relieving," Pruitt said. "It all has to do with mindset. Going from the starting role, you're going to face those guys multiple times. But if you're coming in out of the bullpen, you're not guaranteed to see them twice. So, out of the bullpen, you kind of go after them, attack them with your best stuff. There's no point of trying to set them up for later in the game."
Kittredge views the situation differently.
"Normally, I get the phone call five minutes before I'm in the game," he said. "The fact that I got a 12-to-24-hour notice isn't really affecting how I'm going to go about my business."
Chirinos, 24, made his big league debut against Boston on Sunday, throwing 56 pitches over four innings of relief. The 26-year-old Yarbrough made his debut a day earlier. He followed Kittredge and threw 73 pitches over four innings, allowing one run.
"I've been a starter throughout the minors, but they told me during spring training, hey, we're looking at you this role," Yarbrough said. "They kind of simulate that in spring training, where you don't have as much time to get loose."
In an era when an increasing number of managers and pitching coaches are reluctant to let young starters face the batting order for a third time in a game, the Rays' plan will be analyzed.
"There's a ton of interest when somebody does something new," said A.J. Hinch, manager of the World Series champion Houston Astros. "Is the four-man outfield going to be a trend? Is the bullpen usage going to be a trend? Is having a powerful leadoff hitter going to be a trend? Your personnel has to match the philosophy in which you deploy."
Teams might copy the Rays if they have similar relievers.
"They've got a lot of optionable pieces in their bullpen, whereas a lot of clubs don't," Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said. "I'm going to watch it. Whether it's the five-man infield or four-man outfield, in our game sometimes we automatically always go: 'Well, that can't be right.' Why? 'Because it's never been done that way.' Well, isn't that boring. We do things in life all the time — how do you find out anything? You've got to try it."
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley, AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken and AP freelance writer Doug Gould contributed to this report.
More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball