Tampa Bay Rays; security in an unsettled rotation?

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – While the Tampa Bay Rays figure out what to do with the troubling Wander Franco and their shortstop dilemma, an equal concern had fallen upon the franchise.

With the advent of spring training and the first workout here for pitchers and catchers on Wednesday, the Rays have only one remaining starter in the current rotation from last season. Injuries and a significant trade made assessments for manager Kevin Cash and pitching coach Kyle Synder challenging.

Despite a declaration from Zack Eflin, the remaining starter from 2023, who told reporters after his first organized bullpen session of the spring, that “I’ve never seen as much talent around an organization as I see right now,” Cash and Synder now must harness the energy.

While the Rays’ potential rotation may pop out on paper, “experience” could be a legitimate concern. As Eflin, who will be 30 years old on April 4, is considered the titular head, the remaining rotation remains uncertain.

That represents a significant change from this time a year ago.

“Coming into spring training last year, we thought we were really well positioned in the rotation,” said Cash after the team’s first workout on Wednesday. “We feel that way this year but we’ll get there a little differently. We had more established guys last year and now, guys are eager for opportunities. It is nice to have a guy like Zach Eflin who can carry over and lead the group.”

At the start of spring in 2023, Cash had a plethora of veterans and attempted to build the foundation through this cornerstone. Alas, gross maladies.

Lefthanders Shane McClanahan (forearm tightness) and Jeffrey Springs (elbow) both went down, and each underwent Tommy John surgery, Right-hander Drew Rasmussen, after only eight starts a year ago, was lost due to a flexor strain and is not expected back until in the 2024 season. Right-hander Tyler Glasnow, a strong force on the mound and in the clubhouse, was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the past off-season.

All of which has put the Rays’ rotation in a state of uncertainty.

Now, the Cash-Synder regime hopes a new set is ready to pick up the baton.

Coming over in the Glasgow trade is right-hander Ryan Pepiot, who is expected to step into the rotation. One who transitioned from the bullpen to a starter late last season was right-hander Zack Littel, who could hold the rotation together with some cohesion.

A veteran of six seasons with Minnesota, San Francisco and Boston, the 28-year-old native of Burlington, N. C. experienced a late-season bumpy ride. In 14 starts, he went 3-9 with a 3.93 ERA. After his initial bullpen of the spring Wednesday, he made this promise.

“I definitely feel like a starter and proven I can do it,” Littel said. “Now, it’s just a matter of going out and doing it over the course of the full season. My personal goal is 150, 160, 170 innings. If you’re able to throw that many innings, you’re obviously throwing pretty well. Yes, my personal goal is to eat six, seven innings every start.”

Others in the rotation mix include Aaron Civale, Taj Bradley, and Shane Baz.

At this point, there are no left-handers, but Tyler Alexander, who threw his first bullpen session Wednesday, could surprise. Claimed off waivers from Detroit, Alexander does not have stellar numbers. In five seasons at the major league level, he has a career 11-23 mark and 4.38 ERA. In 2023, he transitioned from starter to the bullpen. At this point, and with a shortage of lefties, Alexander, with an impressive spring, could move back to starting and fit into Cash’s rotation plan.

Elsewhere … the Rays strengthened their bullpen Wednesday by signing right-hander Phil Maton to a one-year deal. The expectation is to have Maton fill a role as a middle reliever or potentially as a set-up reliever. In seven previous seasons with San Diego, Cleveland, and Houston, he recorded just two saves, and was not expected to be in the back-end of the bullpen. The acquisition of closer Josh Hader by the Astros likely made Maton expendable … reliever Jason Adam lost his arbitration case. Adam was trying to be the first player to win back-to-back arbitration rulings since Collin McHugh (2017 and 2018) and Trevor Bauer (2018 and 2019). Coming off a 4-2 season, an ERA of 2.98, and 12 saves, Adam asked for $3.2 million, and the Rays countered with $2.7 million. In 2023, Adam asked for $1.775 million, and the Rays, at that time, countered with $1.55. Adam won that case but lost on Wednesday. “It’s a gamble and definitely the biggest gambling loss in my life,” he smiled outside of the Rays’ clubhouse. “(The Rays) put together a strong case and did a great job. It was a disagreement within the system and not a disagreement, personally. They treated me well through the whole process.”

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