Rays’ rotation takes shape

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Though the starting rotation for the Tampa Bay Rays, at the moment, lacks a left-hander, there appears to be a plethora of options. As the spring pre-season schedule kicks into high gear, those considered at the top of the rotation and those bidding for a job have ample opportunity to help solidify this unit.

Those considered at the rotation tend to change during the season. With four weeks remaining until opening day, right-handers Zach Eflin, Zack Littell, and Ryan Pepiot have assumed their station as principal starers. From here, manager Kevin Cash penciled in righties Taj Bradley and Aaron Civale for the back end. Lefty Tyler Alexander, selected off waivers from Detroit in November of last year, could also find his way into the rotation.

At this point, the choice for Cash appears several and prompts an observation.

“I have never seen so much talent around a baseball team as I have now,” said Eflin earlier this spring. “You can pick out 12 pitchers and anyone can be a front-line starter. Overall, I think this will be a very dangerous group. You look up and down the system here and it’s just full of top rotation arms. There is a great of chemistry in this clubhouse and we are in a really good position with the young arms that we have right.”

Eflin is coming off a 16-8 season in 31 starts and a 3.50 ERA, the lowest ERA in his eight-year major league career. As well, the 29-year-old enters the second year of a three-year deal for $40 million. Considered the titular head of the rotation, Eflin could be pushed by Littel, who is as unassuming as he could be effective.

Coming out of the bullpen last season, Littell was thrust into the rotation in mid-season and responded with a marginal 3-6 season in 14 starts for 26 appearances. Yet, he believes the transition from the bullpen prepared him for a starting spot.

In five seasons at the major league level, Littell has worked essentially out of the bullpen (including three saves for the Giants in the 2021 and 2022 seasons). Now, he is regarded as a significant component of the rotation.

“It’s a little different coming into camp than from last year,” Littell said. “Yes, it’s a change from the bullpen to a starter. The mindset is the same. It’s committing to your job every day. If you think your spot is safe, that’s when you get in trouble.”

Littell likes to describe himself as an “inning-eater,” and posted a goal of 170 to 180 innings as his 2024 benchmark. More important is his ability to throw strikes.

In 2023, Littell, out of Haw River, N. C. walked only nine hitters in 87 innings. In his first start of the spring, struck out three (no walks) in two innings of work against the New York Yankees on Feb. 27. For the outing, he threw 36 pitches and 25 for strikes.

One of the principal off-season deals among all major league clubs in the past off-season involved the Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers. Here, Tampa Bay sent Tyler Glasnow to SoCal in exchange for right-hander Ryan Pepiot, who was coming off a left oblique injury and limited activity. Over the past two seasons, the native of Indianapolis appeared in only 17 games (5-1, 2.76 ERA). For this spring, Pepiot announced that he is healthy and excited about the changed environment.

If injury-free, Pepiot could give the Rays adequate production and a positive clubhouse presence as did Glasnow.

“I feel very comfortable here,” he said. “Everyone here has made it clear they want me to help and to do my best. Even before I got here, they asked about me as a person and about my family. There was no discussion right away about baseball and people invited me to do stuff with them.“

Following a period of acclimation, Pepoit showed up at Tropicana Field in January and began preparation. Immediately, a comfort level was established and anticipation of a rising learning curve, working with Kyle Synder, the Rays pitching coach, accelerated. “I am in very good hands (with Synder). Heard nothing but good things about him and looking forward to getting better each day,” Pepiot added.

Others on Cash’s potential rotation radar screen include righthander Aaron Civale, who came over from Cleveland in a trade at the 2023 deadline. In 10 starts for the Rays a year ago, Civale went 2-3 and posted a 5.36 ERA.

Another potential starter could be Bradley, a 22-year-old, and a fifth-round pick of the Rays in 2018. Last season, the native of Los Angeles went 5-8 (5.59 ERA) in 21 starts.

“(Taj) has looked really good this spring,” Cash noted. “(Snyder) has been bullish on him, and I understand why now.”

If Cash turns a lefty, that could be Alexander, who has experience both as a starter and reliever. “He’ll do anything you ask and is great about it,” said the Tigers’ A. J. Hinch, who managed Alexander for the past five seasons in Detroit.

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