ST. PETERSBURG -- Bullpen talk has been the hot topic in the Rays' camp for the length of Spring Training.
This season, the Rays plan to use four regular starters -- Chris Archer, Blake Snell, Nathan Eovaldi, and Jake Faria -- and a fifth starter on a "bullpen day," during which relievers will fill the nine innings.
According to Rays manager Kevin Cash, the plan to go in this direction was hatched shortly after the completion of the 2017 season. New pitching coach Kyle Snyder has bought in and said, "I'm excited about it. I think that we're built for it."
Executing the plan calls for eight relievers in the bullpen. There will be four long relievers (Andrew Kittredge, Matt Andriese, Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough) and three for shorter stints (Sergio Romo, Jose Alvarado and Chaz Roe) with Alex Colome as the closer.
"I'm excited that it's going to give some of these guys an opportunity before they would have gotten an opportunity otherwise," said Snyder, pointing out that the Rays couldn't go along with this plan if they didn't have the personnel to do so. "I'm excited about the challenge. I've said this to a couple of people. I look at our challenges as a positive, not a negative.
"We've talked about times-through-the-order effect. But I think just given the amount of talent we have in the upper levels of the Minor Leagues, this is going to give us an opportunity to strategically have an advantage against some other ballclubs out there. And how it is we use these pitchers and what it is we're rolling out."
In other words, the Rays are using this because they have healthy enough overall pitching depth to do so, not because they lack a legitimate fifth starter candidate.
Snyder said that the staff will need to remain flexible for the Rays' grand experiment to work.
"And we're going to be presented challenges, like with extra-innings ballgames, things we can't forecast," Snyder said. "There's going to be more of an importance placed on our ability to continue to talk to the pitchers. The importance of them remaining transparent with us as they adapt to a new role.
"But I think fortunately, we saw [Austin] Pruitt and at times, Erasmo [Ramirez] the past couple of years pitch in a similar role. But having four [long relievers] is going to give us an opportunity to probably script it a little more than we have in the past."
Here's an example of how a "bullpen day" might work. One of the four long relievers would begin the day. If he finds trouble earlier than expected, a short reliever might enter in the early innings to put out a fire. Once the fire is extinguished, the Rays could then bring in another long reliever to pitch at least once through the order. Which pitchers are used would be pre-determined according to which can best attack the lineup the Rays would be facing that day.
Why will this work?
"I think it's going to work because it's going to give us a chance to bring guys to the big leagues that otherwise we would be sending back in roles as starting pitchers at Durham," Snyder said. "It's going to give us a better opportunity to take our best 12 pitchers instead of stockpiling starting pitchers [at Durham]."
It should be fun. Stay tuned.