'Nasty' Rays rotation could be best in MLB

February 15th, 2023

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Moments after donning Mickey Mouse caps to commemorate their spring stay in Disney World, the Rays’ leadership group immediately faced questions this week about the team’s offense after doing little this winter to reinforce a lineup that ranked 21st in MLB in runs scored last season and disappeared come October.

Those questions will persist, perhaps until the Rays add a bat (this spring? midseason?), or until the internal improvement they are counting on begins to happen early in the year. Meanwhile, as pitchers and catchers reported to ESPN Wide World of Sports for their first official spring workout Wednesday, the conversation around the team’s pitching staff is entirely antithetical.

The only early question mark seems to be how special it can be.

“As far as starting pitching, we feel like we're in a good spot,” manager Kevin Cash said. “And we hope that continues with good health, but it will be exciting to watch these guys build up. … The five that have kinda been labeled our five starters, there is a lot of excitement around them.”

Coming off a season in which they ranked fourth in MLB in ERA and third in rotation ERA, the Rays think they are about to get even better on the mound. They see a chance at a potentially dominant rotation: ace lefty looking to build off a breakout year, dynamic righty fully healthy, free agent acquisition , newly-extended lefty and the underrated . Buttressing them are solid righty Yonny Chirinos, promising prospect Taj Bradley and upside arms Luis Patiño and Josh Fleming, reassuring given their five starters all come with workload/health concerns.

For the famously innovative Rays, it’s an uncharacteristically tried-and-true formula: a traditional five-man rotation and a whole bunch of enviable depth.

“This is the first time [Cash] has ever been satisfied with our depth,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander quipped.

It's clear the pitchers are excited, too, about the group’s potential.

"We have an insane starting staff and an amazing bullpen,” said Glasnow, who called this staff the deepest he’s seen during his Rays tenure. “We have so much depth, bullpen and starting-wise, it’s like a never-ending cycle of good pitching. I’m extremely excited for that.”

Said McClanahan: “I’d say he’s right. This is probably the deepest bullpen, staff and group we’ve had. It's a really exciting year for us.

“I feel like we have six, seven, eight guys that could easily be in anyone’s rotation, easily be anyone’s No. 1 or No. 2. That just shows the depth we have.”

Asked to describe it in one word, Eflin and Springs landed on the same adjective: “Nasty.”

“There was a reason I wanted to come here,” said Eflin. “You look at all the guys that we have, and everybody can post numbers … it’s going to be fun to work with a staff like that.”

What’s more, Tampa Bay’s top five starters are all under 31 and under team control through at least 2025. And their numbers jump off the page.

McClanahan started last year’s All-Star Game and finished with a 2.54 ERA and 194 strikeouts, good for sixth in Cy Young voting. Glasnow returned from injury to throw five dominant postseason innings; before requiring Tommy John surgery in ’21, he owned a 3.10 ERA and nearly 100 more strikeouts (354) than innings (261 2/3) with Tampa Bay. Springs transitioned from the bullpen and posted a 2.66 ERA as a starter. Rasmussen pitched to a 2.84 mark and nearly threw a perfect game.

Eflin reached the World Series with Philadelphia and signed with the Rays for three years and $40 million, the richest free-agent deal in team history.

“We can be as good as we wanna be,” Eflin said. “You saw a taste of it with all those guys, they were absolutely incredible the entire year. I’m looking forward to sliding right in.”

All of which contextualizes all those questions about the bats. The reason is simple: The Rays don’t want to waste this stable of arms.

“To me, it’s the No. 1 [rotation in baseball],” catcher Christian Bethancourt said. “Hopefully, they can do what they did last year and better. Having Glasnow back and now Eflin, I’m expecting big things from them and I’m sure they’re ready for it.”