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Rays could get creative when assembling 'pen

Tampa Bay exploring possibilities, such as utility players allowing for extra reliever
MLB.com @wwchastain

ST. PETERSBURG -- Circumstances helped usher the Rays into a new bullpen era in 2015. Now some of those ideas have been adopted throughout the Major Leagues -- particularly during the past two postseasons -- and Tampa Bay is continuing to explore better ways to line up its pitching from starter to closer for any given game.

In Kevin Cash's first year as Rays manager in 2015, he experienced firsthand why skippers get gray hair as injuries put several starters on the shelf in the early going and Alex Cobb missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Circumstances helped usher the Rays into a new bullpen era in 2015. Now some of those ideas have been adopted throughout the Major Leagues -- particularly during the past two postseasons -- and Tampa Bay is continuing to explore better ways to line up its pitching from starter to closer for any given game.

In Kevin Cash's first year as Rays manager in 2015, he experienced firsthand why skippers get gray hair as injuries put several starters on the shelf in the early going and Alex Cobb missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery.

The situation left Tampa Bay with a lot of young starting pitchers, and it prompted the idea of shorter outings. Allowing the starter to go twice through the order seemed like a good idea based on how the numbers against opposing hitters got worse the third time through, so the Rays tried it out.

They experienced some resistance, but now the twice-through-the-order idea for maximum effectiveness has gained momentum. The effect of that strategy has placed a greater premium on bullpens.

Video: Cash jokes about evolving view of pitching staff

At the recently completed Winter Meetings, Cash told reporters that the Rays are examining all kinds of possibilities -- even adding extra utility players so that their positional flexibility would allow them to carry an eighth reliever.

"We're discussing it right now," Cash said. "We do need to find a little bit more information as far as our roster, how the bullpen is going to shake out. But I think there's going to be opportunities where if we're really versatile with that utility role that a guy that can play infield and outfield, it might allow to us carry an extra reliever at times throughout the season.

"We'll always adjust depending on the state of the game and what our situation is as far as health in the bullpen and our rotation. But you want to be able to have that flexibility, because the last thing we ever want to do is put guys in jeopardy of overusing them too much."

Cash emphasizes value of 'pen, middle relievers

Putting together this year's bullpen will be a challenge. Tommy Hunter signed with the Phillies, Steve Cishek agreed to a deal with the Cubs and Sergio Romo is a free agent. The Rays traded Brad Boxberger to the D-backs, and closer Alex Colome is rumored to be heading elsewhere, as well.

"It was nice after the [non-waiver Trade] Deadline with the veteran guys that we brought in -- Cishek, Romo, Dan Jennings -- and Tommy Hunter had a tremendous year. Colome obviously had a tremendous year. But those additions really helped us late in ballgames. ... I think we all learned and saw the value of that the last month and a half of the season."

Tampa Bay is looking at a 2018 bullpen that would include the likes of Jennings, Jose Alvarado, Chih-Wei Hu, Austin Pruitt, Chaz Roe, Andrew Kittredge, Jaime Schultz and Ryne Stanek as the mainstays.

"I think we're going to have a bunch of guys from our farm system, namely in Triple-A, come in and compete," Cash said. "We're going to have some opportunities. We started a bunch of pitchers last year. We're not going to have nine starting pitchers, so we're really going to have to find ways to put them in successful situations in the bullpen, some leverage positions that can help us."

Cash noted that he's looking forward to assembling this year's group with new pitching coach Kyle Snyder.

"I'm really going to lean on him quite a bit because he saw a lot of those guys in [Triple-A] Durham and saw how they performed in non-starting roles and the dual/multiple-inning roles," Cash said.

Cash conceded that there could be more of a premium on middle relief than in the past.

"Without a doubt. Everybody looks or talks about the eighth and ninth innings," Cash said. "We have said it for a long time now: There are a lot of games that are won in the fifth through the seventh. And I don't know if you put a higher premium -- the last three outs of the game have always been shown to be tough to come by and get. But the three outs are three outs, and we've got to find guys that are very capable of consistency of having success in those middle innings."

Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for MLB.com since 2005.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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