With less than a week until Opening Day, the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays rotation is set. Returning ace Tyler Glasnow and stalwart Ryan Yarbrough are joined by the free agent additions of Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, and former Rays’ ace Chris Archer. If the season goes according to plan, the Rays will be fielding a full starting rotation for just over $18 million this year—roughly half of what the Yankees are giving ace Gerritt Cole for this season alone.
However, that’s a pretty big “if.” All three new additions come with significant injury concerns, exacerbated by the general risk attached to all pitchers this year adjusting to a normal workload after a shortened 2020 season. The chances all five pitchers remain healthy and in the rotation—while technically nonzero—are slim, to say the least. So let’s take a look at some of the stacked Rays farm system’s pitching prospects who are angling for a spot on the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays roster this season—and maybe even a starting role.
2021 Tampa Bay Rays: The Next Up
Josh Fleming has never been a heralded prospect. Even now, as he hangs on to his rookie eligibility by a thread, he ranks as only the 24th-best prospect in the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays organization on Baseball America (and 21st on MLB.com). Fleming was given a shot at a starting role last season after Yonny Chirinos went down with an injury, and the 24-year-old delivered, compiling an impressive 2.78 ERA over five starts and a pair of long-relief appearances. He finished up the regular season with a scoreless six-inning start against the Phillies, making a compelling case for a rotation spot.
Fleming doesn’t have overwhelming stuff; he relies heavily on a 90 mph sinker that he threw over 50% of the time last year. He’s unlikely to ever be a high-strikeout guy, instead relying on limiting hard contact and walks which he did effectively in 2020. Given his prior experience (and success) as a starter, Fleming is likely to be the first in line to take over a starting role which, as previously mentioned, could come sooner rather than later. Whether he makes the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays roster on Opening Day or not, he’ll be an integral part of the team this season that will be desperate for an innings-eater like Fleming.
Also in line for a potential starting role is 23-year-old Shane McClanahan, who was thrown into the gauntlet last year when he made his MLB debut in the postseason. He struggled, allowing four earned runs through 4.1 innings over four appearances, but nevertheless showed the league what the 84th-ranked MLB prospect is capable of. Through three appearances in Spring Training, he has impressed—racking up seven strikeouts over three innings, giving up just one hit without allowing a walk or a run.
McClanahan has a high-heat fastball that can hit triple digits paired with a strong slider. He’s arguably ready for a bullpen spot already, even if his postseason debut showed some weaknesses.
But the Rays are eyeing a starting job for McClanahan long term, which will be highly dependent on whether he can continue to develop a third pitch into his arsenal—a changeup. He’s been sent back to the minors to start the season and work on his changeup, but rest assured he’ll be back at some point this season, whether for the bullpen or the rotation.
He’ll be vying with the 19th-ranked prospect in MLB (#2 in the Rays organization): Luis Patiño, the biggest piece of the trade with the Padres that saw Blake Snell go to San Diego. Patiño made his debut last season, posting a 5.19 ERA while racking up 21 strikeouts of 17.1 innings, yet also walking nearly a batter per inning. He threw his four-seamer—which hits upper 90s—nearly two-thirds of the time, yet was also able to generate good whiffs with his slider and changeup.
Through three innings in Spring Training, he’s allowed just one run with zero walks or runs, along with a lone strikeout. His biggest issue—command—looks promising, as he’s been able to throw consistent strikes.
Patiño will be a major league pitcher—and it’ll be sooner rather than later—but like McClanahan, he needs to prove he has sufficient secondary offerings (more specifically the command to control said secondary pitches) beyond his impressive heater to make a real run at a starting role. Similar to McClanahan, Patiño has a high ceiling in the majors, but even if he struggles to develop his secondary pitches he’s likely to have a successful career out of the bullpen.
I wouldn’t be surprised if both of these two are somewhat restricted to a relief role on the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays to keep a close watch on their innings. Patiño and the lefty McClanahan could develop into a formidable one-two punch out of the bullpen, but the fragility of the rotation could push them into a starting job out of necessity sooner than Kevin Cash would like.
The Injury Concerns
We now move onto a pair of question mark pitchers that are nonetheless intriguing prospects for Tampa Bay. The biggest issue with these two pitchers is injuries, especially in an unorthodox year such as this one. Both of these pitchers are likely to get MLB time this season, but their workloads—coming off of injuries—will be cautiously managed on a team that already manages pitching with zeal. It likely prohibits them from a consistent starting role, at least on the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays. Both, however, are projected to work out long-term as a starter.
First up we have Brendan McKay, the fifth-ranked Rays prospect (#72 overall). McKay is a two-way player who the Rays primarily want to develop as a pitcher. He posted a 5.14 ERA through 49 innings back in 2019, striking out 56 and walking 16. It was a solid enough debut for the Rays, but unfortunately their 2020 plans were derailed by season-ending surgery to repair his labrum.
McKay enters the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays season as a hitter, involved with batting practice and even getting a single plate appearance in Spring Training (he drew a walk). At the moment, however, he’s still largely in the rehab phase in his pitching development. Ultimately, it’s his pitching prowess that the Rays are interested in most, and he’s been sent back to the minors to start the year in hopes that he can continue his rehab and get into game shape.
The 25-year-old is a well-rounded pitcher with a deep arsenal and solid command. Shoulder surgery is always dicey for pitchers, but if he can retain his command as he builds his arm back up, he could get some major league innings before the year is up. His profile lends itself to a starting role, so he could get even get some starts (or long relief) if the Rays are comfortable with the workload.
We then move on to Brent Honeywell Jr., who coming into Spring Training had not pitched since September of 2017. Honeywell was projected to debut in 2018 but had Tommy John surgery in the offseason and has had several followup injuries that have prevented him from any in-game experience. After nearly 1,300 days, Honeywell pitched again during this week’s Grapefruit League matchup against the Red Sox, logging one earned run:
Feel-good elements aside, Honeywell has some serious upside, yet is arguably the biggest question mark for the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays. Before TJS, Honeywell was one of the top prospects in the Rays system with an extensive five-pitch arsenal with a wicked changeup and even a screwball.
Early signs are positive, as he was able to mimic his 2017 velocity on his four-seamer (mid 90s) and he got through a full inning without any serious issues. He’s been sent back to AAA where he’ll continue to work himself back into game shape. The Rays will certainly be cautious with the 25-year-old’s workload, but like McKay he boasts a starter’s profile and that’s inevitably where Tampa Bay want him to end up.
In a season where injury risks are higher than usual following an abbreviated 2020, the always-cautious Rays will be even more careful with their pitchers, especially those coming off of injury. But they might not have a choice—their reliance on a trio of injury-prone free agent acquisitions to round out the rotation could backfire spectacularly and force their hand into looking to these young pitchers to step up into a starting role. Whatever happens, there will be some exciting rookies to watch this season.
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