What do you do if you’re a Major League Baseball team that traded one of its five starting pitchers and has no interest in opening its wallet for a replacement? Apparently, you just use a four-man rotation.
On Wednesday, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters that his team will employ a shortened starting staff potentially all season, using relievers to piece together full games when necessary.
#Rays Cash just said they could go with 4-man rotation all season, filling in with bullpen guys when needed to start
— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) March 7, 2018
Cash’s comment comes two and a half weeks after the Rays traded starter Jake Odorizzi as part of a fairly dramatic roster teardown. That deal left Tampa with four clear starting pitchers (Chris Archer, Jake Faria, Blake Snell, Nathan Eovaldi) with a couple other guys (Matt Andriese, Jose de Leon) floating around. Though plenty of starting pitchers remain on the free-agent market, Tampa seems to have no interest in signing one.
The Rays’ decision to use a four-man rotation represents a departure from prevailing trends across the league. Most teams these days use five-men rotations while occasionally inserting a sixth pitcher, while the Los Angeles Angels recently announced they will employ a six-man rotation throughout the season. With teams ever more conscious of protecting pitchers’ arms, they have generally asked starters to throw less often, not more often. Four-man rotations have therefore gone the way of stirrups and sacrifice bunts.
Now, the Rays aren’t the first team this decade to try a four-man rotation. In 2012, the Rockies experimented with tandem starters, pulling pitchers after a couple times through the order and inserting essentially a second starter in relief, before scrapping the plan amid backlash and dissent. Other teams have tried the same schtick in the minor leagues. It’s unclear if the Rays, who have gained a reputation for lifting their starters early, plan to use any sort of tandem system in 2018.
Of course, maybe Tampa won’t actually follow through with this plan. It’s certainly possible that Cash and company will try out the four-man rotation during April, when off days are aplenty, then abandon it once the schedule condenses. In a sport often afraid of change, radical ideas often get cast aside fairly quickly.
But if the Rays really do stick with their four-man rotation, their pitchers are going to be heavily taxed. Starters will throw more often, never getting an extra day of rest, while relievers will be asked to enter early and often piece together games by themselves. Unless Tampa is extremely careful, there could be a lot of sore arms at Tropicana Field this year.