Who will follow Eflin in Rays' rotation?

December 15th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry's Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Ten months ago, the Rays entered Spring Training with a rotation that could have been the envy of baseball. Two healthy aces in Shane McClanahan and Tyler Glasnow. Two underrated gems in Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen. A solid veteran in free-agent acquisition . Plenty of depth behind them.

Now? McClanahan, sidelined by his second Tommy John surgery, isn’t expected to pitch next year. Springs and Rasmussen are also rehabbing and may not be ready until midseason, at the earliest. And Glasnow will soon be gone, as he’s poised to be traded to (and extended by) the Dodgers.

That’s a lot of talent either on the shelf or potentially heading out the door. So, what comes next for the Rays’ rotation?

It starts with Eflin, who enjoyed a career year in his first season with Tampa Bay. The right-hander provided steady, valuable leadership in the clubhouse and performed on the mound, too. Eflin produced a career-best 3.50 ERA with 186 strikeouts in 177 2/3 innings over 31 starts, all career-high marks.

Eflin’s passion for pitching, vast arsenal and pinpoint command made him a perfect match with pitching coach Kyle Snyder and the Rays’ coaching staff. Their partnership led to Eflin finishing sixth in this year’s American League Cy Young Award voting, and it’s safe to assume he’ll be back atop the rotation next season.

Who will be behind Eflin?

The Glasnow trade with the Dodgers would offer one solution, if the deal is indeed completed: Ryan Pepiot. The 26-year-old right-hander would have played a bigger part in the Dodgers’ rotation last season if not for a left oblique injury. But the former Top 100 prospect has been effective when healthy, producing a 2.76 ERA in 17 outings for the Dodgers over the past two years.

The Rays also paid a steep price for Aaron Civale at the Trade Deadline for a reason, even if his results down the stretch were less than inspiring. The 28-year-old right-hander, projected by Cot’s Baseball Contracts to earn $4 million through arbitration next year, saw his ERA jump from 2.34 in 13 starts for the Guardians to 5.36 in 10 outings with the Rays.

Civale’s strikeout rate took a massive jump with Tampa Bay (29.3% compared to 19% with Cleveland), and his FIP was nearly identical (3.63 to 3.53), but he only recorded an out in the sixth inning twice down the stretch. The Rays will count on a return to form from Civale, as his years of club control were part of the appeal when they gave up first-base prospect Kyle Manzardo to land him.

They’re also expecting bigger and better things from Taj Bradley, the former top prospect who debuted earlier than expected last season. He had his ups and downs as a rookie but consistently flashed strikeout stuff, and he’s bound to benefit from the experience he gained this year.

Similarly, Zack Littell took on a much bigger role than anyone -- including the Rays -- would have anticipated when they claimed him on waivers early last season. Moving from the bullpen to the rotation, Littell put together a 3.38 ERA in 64 innings over 11 starts from July 30-Sept. 23 and earned the opportunity to see where it takes him next season.

But there will be some concern about Littell’s workload, as he took a huge jump in innings from 2022 (59 2/3, including the Minors) to ’23 (104). Same goes for Shane Baz in his return from Tommy John surgery, as Baz will presumably be limited after recovering this year and only pitching 40 innings over 10 starts in 2022. Baz has electric stuff, though, and should be able to make an impact if he returns to the pre-injury form that allowed him to speed through the Minors for his ’21 debut.

Of course, the Rays have learned all too well that it takes more than five or six starters to get through the season. But their Major League-ready depth has taken a few hits lately, with frequent contributor Cooper Criswell having landed with the Red Sox, and their next high-end starting prospect might be Yoniel Curet in the low Minors.

With that in mind, keep an eye on lefty Jacob Lopez, who debuted late this past season and pitched well in a relief role. And offseason acquisition Tyler Alexander may not be a true starter, but he could serve as a swingman capable of picking up bulk innings. The offseason isn’t over, either. The Rays could continue to pursue trades or explore the free-agent field for back-of-the-rotation/depth options.