Could Zack Littel ascend in the Rays’ rotation?

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Here at the halfway point of spring training, the Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation seems unstable. Though some are “penciled” in as the starting five, past performance and adjustment to a principal role could be combustible factors.

At this point, it appears a safe bet that Zach Eflin will start the season as the top of manager Kevin Cash’s starters. Coming off a 16-8 season a year ago (3.50 ERA for 31 starts), Eflin, who will be 30 years old a week after opening day, will likely open against Toronto at Tropicana Field on March 28. Beyond that, the remaining components are as uncertain as late afternoon Florida thunderstorms.

One who could emerge as an important contributor might be right-hander Zack Littel, who is making the transition from the bullpen into the rotation. A reliever throughout his six-year Major League career, Littel was thrust into the Rays’ rotation late season. That was due to a plethora of injuries and Littel impressed to receive serious rotation consideration this spring.

Though limited as a starter, the 28-year-old Littel has appeared in 173 major league games with Minnesota, the Giants, the Red Sox, and Rays. Here, he had only four starts with the Twins, Red Sox and Giants and, because of injuries to starters Drew Rasmussen, Shane McClanahan, and Jeffrey Springs, Littel started 14 games for Tampa Bay last season. In those starts, he went 3-6, but an ERA (3.93) of under 4 runs per nine innings.

Now, he pronounced himself ready for both a successful change to the rotation and the added responsibility.

“It’s a little bit of different feeling this year,” he said. “The mindset is the same and that is to make sure you’re ready to go for opening day. Still going out every spring and competing like your job is on the line. When you think your spot is safe, that’s when you get into trouble,”

Littel identified himself as “an inning eater,” and expressed a desire to go at least seven innings in any given start. While 200 innings remain on every pitcher’s radar screen, that number is elusive. At the same time, Littel, out of Haw River, N.C., realizes the deeper he pitches into games, the better he gives the Rays a chance to win.

“The goal of 200 innings is extremely lofty,” he pointed out. “I would love to reach 200, I would love to get to 180, I would love to get as many as possible. Really, I just want to be healthy for 32 starts.”

Scheduled for his third start of the spring against the Orioles on March 12, the initial appearances could establish a benchmark. In his opening two spring starts of a combined four innings, Littel allowed no runs and punched out four hitters. Hitting the strike zone constantly, he delivered 25 strikes on 36 pitches against the New York Yankees on Feb. 27. That was his initial start of the spring.

As the season progresses, the Rays’ expectations for Littel appear genuine. He is not considered a power pitcher within the definition and past numbers indicate a production level that could be conducive to winning.

Over his six years at the major league level, Littel averages 1.3 home runs allowed per nine innings, 2.5 walks, and 7.8 strikeouts for a nine-inning barometer. These numbers would indicate the consistency Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder expect from a front-line starter.

In the trainer’s room. … outfielder Jonny DeLuca, who came over from the Dodgers in the Ryan Pepiot-for-Tyler Glasnow deal, suffered a broken arm in the series against Boston in the Dominican Republic. DeLuca was battling for a reserve outfield job and his timetable for recovery is the usual 4-6 weeks for such a fracture.

Elsewhere … at the halfway point of camp, Cash said he was “excited (infielder Junior Caminero and utility player Amed Rosario) are with us and help us throughout the course of the season. (Caminero) has done everything we’ve asked for at short and (Rosario) has the biggest workload of anybody in camp and asking to play two positions at second and in the outfield. Taking things in stride and performing well.”

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