As we move into the final weeks of Spring Training, the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays rotation is largely coming into focus.
Coming into the season, the biggest question mark was the starting rotation. With considerable turnover from the previous season, the Rays turned to free-agent signings to bridge the gap until their farm system can supply new starters (which may be sooner than you think). Per manager Kevin Cash, the rotation is now set with two returning starters in Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough and three veteran free agents: Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, and Chris Archer.
Glasnow and Yarbrough were the only locks for the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays rotation coming into Spring Training after a turbulent offseason where the Rays traded away ace Blake Snell and let veteran Charlie Morton walk in free agency. The Rays had a top-tier rotation in 2019 but fell to the middle of the pack in 2020. Glasnow faced a similar trajectory after a 2019 season that started in the running for a Cy Young—1.78 ERA through 60.2 IP, a season unfortunately cut short by injury— was followed up by a mediocre 2020, though with the consistent flashes of brilliance we’ve come to expect.
However, a shortened season can produce some wacky outcomes. Glasnow backed up his 4.08 ERA in 2020 with a 3.66 FIP. The expected metrics were even more surprising: Glasnow’s xFIP was 2.75, better than it was in his impressive 2019 season and good for 7th among all starters with at least 10 innings pitched in 2020. It suggests that Glasnow’s true skill lies somewhere between those two short seasons. There’s a lot for Rays fans to like about Glasnow and he’ll come into the season as the team’s ace. Cash has already announced Glasnow will take the mound as the Opening Day starter for Tampa Bay.
Yarbrough had a great 2020, finishing the year with a 3.56 ERA and the highest bWAR (and second-highest fWAR) of all Rays starters. He appeared in 11 games—starting nine and appearing behind an opener in one—and all but locked down one of the 2021 starting spots, even if Snell and Morton had remained on the roster. Still, Glasnow and Yarbrough are the only known quantities in the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays rotation—not exactly standard procedure for a pennant winner.
Fresh (and Familiar) Faces
So where will the rest of the rotation come from? If we believe Kevin Cash, it will come from a combined $12 million in one-year free agents. If things work out the way the Rays’ front office hopes, it’ll be an absolute steal. The 2021 Tampa Bay Rays roster will be a masterclass in maximizing value. The only problem? All three pitchers have big question marks.
We start with the veteran: longtime journeyman Rich Hill, who just last week celebrated his 41st birthday. Not always the most auspicious quality in a starting pitcher, but Hill has defied Father Time for years. He didn’t fully break out until the ripe old age of 35, and since he did so in 2015 he’s pitched just over 500 innings and posted an impressive 2.92 ERA over that span.
Last season, Hill was on a one-year deal with the Twins and finished with a 3.03 ERA in 38.2 innings. It speaks to the ageless wonder continuing with business as usual, but there are a few warning signs. Hill was able to produce such an impressive performance due to limiting the long ball, where he halved his home run rate from the years prior. Other metrics, however, are concerning: his strikeout rate dropped significantly while his walk rate rose; overall, his K%-BB% dropped to its lowest in over a decade. While we’re admittedly looking at a small sample (Hill started only eight games in 2020), his results don’t quite match up with the underlying metrics.
The veteran southpaw struggled in his Spring Training debut on March 5th, giving up four runs without recording an out before the Rays called the inning after 28 pitches. He made up for it last week when he went three scoreless innings with one walk and one hit against his former team, getting a good feel for his go-to pitch, the curveball. He threw 36 pitches and is looking more and more like the reliable starter the front office was hoping for when they signed him to the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays roster.
Entering the 2016 season, 24-year-old Michael Wacha was looking like the Cardinals’ budding ace. Over his first three seasons in the big leagues, Wacha compiled a 3.21 ERA through 353 innings, including an impressive performance as a rookie in the 2013 postseason.
Over the following four seasons in St. Louis, Wacha struggled with injuries—particularly a nagging shoulder injury that has plagued him for years—and cobbled together a mediocre 4.39 ERA, averaging just over 23 starts per season. His walk rate rose and while his overall output was by no means terrible, he hadn’t turned into the star the Cardinals has believed in. Hitting free agency in 2020, he signed a one-year deal with the Mets, finishing the shortened season with a brutal 6.62 ERA through 34 innings.
Wacha was a cheap $3 million deal for the Rays and there’s enough in the underlying metrics to feel like there’s still real potential underneath the unsightly 6.62 ERA from last year. While he gave up significantly more home runs on average than ever before, leading to the bloated ERA, his 2020 season also boasted the highest strikeout and lowest walk rates of his career.
Wacha’s FIP was nearly a point and a half lower than his actual ERA, and his xFIP was over two points lower—indicating the rough luck on home runs might have played an unfair role in the actual outcome. Wacha has always been a solid pitcher if healthy, but that’s a big if. The 2021 Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff will need to have a lot of flexibility to maintain 162 games’ worth of innings.
The 29-year-old has been sharp so far through two starts in the Grapefruit League, going three total innings and recording one hit, one walk, and two strikeouts without allowing a run. He went another 3+ innings in an intrasquad game last week as the Rays look to amp up his workload in preparation for the beginning of the regular season.
Last, we come to the returning ace: Chris Archer. Archer made his major league debut with Tampa Bay back in 2012, and like Wacha he showed a lot of promise as the young ace-to-be for the Rays. In his first three full seasons of major league play, Archer compiled an impressive 3.26 ERA. As he got more comfortable his yearly ERA rose over 4 but his strikeout rate rose along with it. In his role as Tampa Bay ace, Archer boasted a K% around 25%, and while he was never a lockdown run-preventer, he was plenty valuable.
He was valuable enough that in 2018, Archer was traded to the Pirates in a deal that netted the Rays Austin Meadows, Glasnow, and Shane Baz. It turned out to be a steal for Tampa Bay when Archer put up an ERA over 5 in 2019—his first and only full season with the Pirates—and missed all of 2020 after surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, a procedure with a limited track record for MLB pitchers. Now he’s back in Tampa Bay and looking for a fresh—yet familiar—start.
Archer made his first appearance back on the mound since 2019 in a Spring Training game last Friday, drawing the start against the Red Sox and going 1.1 scoreless innings with no hits, no walks, and a strikeout of Alex Verdugo. His fastball velocity isn’t fully back and he’ll need to work his way up (he threw only six pitches for those four outs) to manage a starter’s workload, but Archer claims he has “no doubts” he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season.
2021 Tampa Bay Rays: Next Up in the Rotation
A backup plan—or three—in the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays rotation is crucial to surviving the long regular season. In classic Rays fashion, they’re gambling with a low payroll and hoping their lottery ticket free agents pay off. But even if they do, injuries happen and pitching workloads will need to be cautiously managed after a shortened 2020 season. So who’s next up?
Right now, I’d put my money on Josh Fleming, who stepped into a starting role back in August 2020 to replace the injured Yonny Chirinos. Fleming impressed many through his five starts and two long relief appearances, compiling a 2.78 ERA in his debut season, including six scoreless innings over the Phillies in his last start of the regular season. He’s still rookie-eligible and needs plenty of big-league seasoning, but he’s already shown promise as a starter. It seems just about inevitable that Fleming—along with a few other members of the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff—will get their opportunity at a starting role.
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