And you thought our 2021 Rays predictions for the Opening Day lineup were wishy-washy. In a year where pitching workloads will be limited league-wide to an unprecedented level after the shortened 2020 season, the Rays have a myriad of pitching options. The pioneers of the opener strategy will no doubt get creative and employ a flexible approach where starting rotation and bullpen are fluid, shifting terms, making any 2021 Rays predictions tenuous at best. Nevertheless, we’ll take our best guesses at what the most likely Rays pitching staff scenarios could show up in 2021.
With Blake Snell now a Padre, Tyler Glasnow is the clear Opening Day starter. Glasnow was looking like a Cy Young contender in 2019 before injuries derailed his season, finishing with a sterling 1.78 ERA through 60.2 IP. He was unable to replicate this feat last season, but finished with a respectable 4.08 ERA through 11 starts in 2020. He’s found a lot of success since he was traded from Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay and will be the cornerstone of the Rays’ rotation for 2021.
The next locked-up spot in the rotation is Ryan Yarbrough, who was spectacular in his first season as a full-time starter in 2020, boasting a 3.56 ERA through 55.2 IP. He won’t post eye-popping strikeout numbers (averaged 7.1 K/9 in 2020), but he still managed an impressive 3.80 FIP last season, primarily behind his strong ability to limit both walks (1.9 BB/9) and home runs (0.8 HR/9). After last season, a starting spot should be his to lose, which means we’ll be seeing a lot of cutters this season.
After that, the 2021 Rays predictions get murky as we take a look at the remaining rotation spots. The only other returning starter is Josh Fleming, who posted an impressive (yet unsustainable) 2.78 ERA through five starts and two long-relief appearances. He primarily relies on just two pitches in a four-seamer (good) and slider (less good) but I suspect he’ll need to prove the value of his changeup—which he only threw around 16% of the time but to solid effect—to make a real case for a starting job. That said, Fleming might not even start the season in the majors, so temper your expectations.
Keep an eye out for Trevor Richards as a potential starter as well. Richards was a full-time starter in Miami but shifted to more of a relief role with the occasional spot start since he was acquired by Tampa Bay. He’s got a career ERA in the mid 4’s but was a serviceable innings-eater with the Marlins.
Since coming to the Rays near the end of the 2019 season, however, Richards has reached five innings only twice, with both outings coming in 2019. He’s not the flashiest option for Tampa Bay but in a season where workloads are likely to be limited for most—if not all—pitchers, he could certainly get a shot at significant long-relief appearances, if not even a few starts.
Out of the Frying Pan and into the… Hot Stove?
With Blake Snell gone and Charlie Morton signing with the Braves, the Rays are looking to free agency to solve their rotation woes, as Yonny Chirinos, Jalen Beeks, and Brendan McKay have all undergone surgical procedures that will cause them to miss some or all of the 2021 season. When they return, they likely will need to be limited to shorter relief roles.
The Rays have elected to plug the holes by signing one-year deals with Michael Wacha, Chris Archer, Collin McHugh, and Rich Hill—all of whom have struggled for some reason or another but could end up being cheap reclamation projects for Tampa Bay.
Wacha was awful in 2020 (6.62 ERA through 34 innings) but has flashed a lot of potentials and at just three million dollars, the 29-year-old could end up a high-value signing. Archer was an ace for Tampa Bay for years before he was traded to the Pirates. While he could find his groove back on the Rays, expectations should be low for the right-hander as he’s coming off thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, a procedure with a limited track record for MLB pitchers (and even fewer success stories).
Hill likely has the best chance of any of the new signings to carve out a consistent starting role; as I wrote about previously, his curveball is still plenty impressive and at age 40, his biggest obstacle is health.
Since ‘breaking out’ in 2015 at the age of 35, Hill has posted a 2.92 ERA—including a 3.03 in 38.2 innings with the Twins last year—but never pitched over 135 innings in a season during the stretch. He could be a great candidate to come out behind an opener, due to concerns over his volume. I’m a bit wary to make too many 2021 Rays predictions about these free-agent signings, but Hill is the one I feel most confident about—as long as he can stay healthy, that is.
Of course, the use of openers, six-man rotations, or bullpen games are not only possible but expected. If the last few seasons have been any indication, the Rays will be spreading the work around as much as any team in the league.
2021 Rays Predictions: Bullpen
A handful of the Rays’ bullpen arms could pitch their way into starting, but as it stands Tampa Bay has a lot of talented pitchers who may not yet be ready for a full starting role.
Some strong returners will likely anchor the Rays bullpen, led by primary 2020 closers Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo, who recorded six and four saves, respectively. Righties Chaz Roe and Pete Fairbanks both contributed sub-3 ERAs for the Rays in 2020 and should get a decent number of innings in 2021. Ryan Thompson was mediocre during the season but contributed a stellar 1.93 ERA through 9.2 postseason innings.
Expect Collin McHugh, who primarily transitioned into a reliever over the past few seasons, to be a fixture of the bullpen who could potentially pitch his way into a starting job. McHugh, however, didn’t pitch in 2020 and will likely be limited in terms of his pitch count for quite a while.
2021 Rays Predictions: What If?
Rounding out the Rays bullpen are some exciting young prospects. While they’ll likely start the season in the bullpen (or even the minors), where they end up is anyone’s guess. My most optimistic 2021 Rays predictions include some potential spot starts for Luis Patiño (who came over from the Padres in the Blake Snell trade), Brent Honeywell Jr. (who hasn’t pitched since 2017 but is finally healthy and ready to make his mark on the majors), and Shane McClanahan, who got his first taste of major league hitting with a brutal trial-by-fire when he debuted in the 2020 postseason.
It should be exciting to see how the Rays handle these three prospects as they get a real chance to pitch in 2021. They should get plenty of opportunities and with the Rays’ current rotation (or lack thereof), their ceilings are sky-high.
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