2021 Tampa Bay Rays season preview – Starting Pitching

Tyler Glasnow (center) will be the unquestioned ace of a new-look Tampa Bay Rays starting rotation in 2021. (Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

Opening Day is finally here, and to all of you reading this article, I wish you a Happy Opening Day! Baseball is back and we couldn’t be happier!

With baseball comes the sheer amount of season previews and much, much more, and here at Rays The Roof, we are no stranger to providing you with the best information we can.

We’ve already started our season preview series on Wednesday, talking about what things are going to look like within Tampa Bay’s infield. There were a lot of candidates to go over and it will be interesting to see how the infield will operate in 2021.

Now, we go over to the rubber to look at what will be a drastically different starting pitching rotation compared to the start of the 2020 season.

No longer are Blake Snell and Charlie Morton the two headliners in the Rays rotation. There are a new crop of names, both new and old, to look at for the 2021 season. Here are our probables and some surprises to keep an eye out for.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

RHP Tyler Glasnow

2020 Statistics: 5-1 record, 4.08 ERA, 91 K, 22 BB, 57.1 IP, 3.66 FIP, 14.3 K/9, 101 ERA+

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: 9-5 record, 3.92 ERA, 164 K, 51 BB, 131 IP, 11.3 K/9

Glasnow is now the expected ace of the Rays this season with the departures of Snell and Morton from the rotation. This is the same pitcher who was arguably the most dominant arm at the start of the 2019 season after coming over in the Chris Archer deal. Then, since his injury which sidelined him for the majority of that season, Glasnow just hasn’t looked like the same pitcher.

One thing that will be to his advantage in 2021 is the introduction of the “slutter”, a combination of a slider and cutter that Glasnow debuted during spring training. It looks like a deadly pitch if located correctly. The tall righty’s biggest problem is not pitch quality or velocity, it’s location and pitch count.

He’s someone who you can’t rely to go more than five innings into a game and in those five innings, Glasnow might strike out 10 batters, but he’ll also throw 100 pitches and give up a home run or two. He needs to work on control and pitch quality and if he can do that, he’ll go back to his 2019 form as one of the best arms in the American League.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

LHP Ryan Yarbrough

2020 Statistics: 1-4 record, 3.56 ERA, 44 K, 12 BB, 55.2 IP, 116 ERA+, 3.80 FIP, 7.1 K/9

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: 9-7 record, 4.12 ERA, 116 K, 36 BB, 131 IP, 8.0 K/9

Yarbrough is a fun watch for those who enjoy a crafty left-handed pitcher who is not going to blow hitters away with crazy velocity, but instead will induce weak contact. Opponents hit some of the weakest balls in terms of average exit velocity off Yarbrough than any other pitcher in MLB, which is a testament to how he’s worked on the mound.

What the Rays have gotten the last three seasons out of Yarbrough is what’s expected out of him, but it seems like his 2018 is more like what to expect out of him in terms of his peak production value. His ERA+ was highest in the shortened 2020 season, so maybe his age 29 year will be trending upward for him.

He’s been tabbed as Tampa Bay’s probable No. 2 starter this season, a massive jump from being the No. 4 starter in 2020 and a high-value pitcher toward the end of the Rays rotation since coming up in 2018. However, Yarbrough has No. 2 starter quality written all over him and he deserves the recognition for being one of the more consistent starters in the rotation recently. If Kevin Cash needs an arm to give him 6-7 quality innings, Yarbrough is his guy.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

LHP Rich Hill

2020 Statistics: 2-2 record, 3.03 ERA, 31 K, 17 BB, 38.2 IP, 140 ERA+, 3.99 FIP, 7.2 K/9

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: 7-6 record, 3.85 ERA, 118 K, 48 BB, 117 IP, 9.1 K/9

Hill was one of several new additions on the pitching side, signed to a one-year, $2.5 million contract this offseason. He’s the older version of Ryan Yarbrough, essentially, a left-hander with good breaking pitches who induces weak contact from opponents. He’s tabbed to start the opening series finale against Miami, but he was one of a few names that fit into Tampa Bay’s experiment of having 8-10 pitchers throw 80-100 innings in 2021.

The organization still might do that and Hill might indeed fit into those plans really well. However, he still has starter quality going into his age 41 season with the Rays. Hill is the elder statesman of the team and might be one of the oldest starters the Rays have used in recent years as Charlie Morton was signed to a two-year deal at age 36. 

One thing to note about Hill is that his stuff is still lively and he’s going to get tons of swing-and-misses on his curveball, much like the aforementioned Tyler Glasnow. Imagine being a fly on the wall for a conversation between those two about that. A full season yields good quality out of Hill, so expect his previous numbers to stay the course in 2021.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

RHP Chris Archer

2019 Statistics (DNP in 2020): 3-9 record, 5.19 ERA, 143 K, 55 BB, 119.1 IP, 84 ERA+, 5.02 FIP, 10.8 K/9

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: 3-5 record, 4.75 ERA, 78 K, 30 BB, 72 IP, 9.8 K/9

Don’t let the projections fool you about Archer, who is the final piece to come back to the Rays in the Chris Archer deal. Yes, the Rays fleeced the Pittsburgh Pirates in trading Archer in 2018 and have now re-signed him. It’s hilarious and will never get old. The righty signed a one-year, $6.5 million deal this offseason to come back to Tampa Bay, his former stomping grounds where he had his best seasons on the mound.

For those that don’t know what happened to Archer in Pittsburgh, not only does the coaching staff not know how to properly take care of its pitchers, he also introduced an unnecessary sinker into his arsenal that threw him for a loop. It ruined his pitching performance and hopefully, he won’t touch that pitch at all in 2021.

Archer back on the Rays with pitching coach Kyle Snyder will be a breath of fresh air as he should be able to rebound in a big way this season. His projections are severely undervaluing him as he should be able to post a sub-4.00 ERA with a high K/9 rate and quality innings on the mound. Once fully stretched out, he’ll be able to throw 6 quality innings with ease, a massive positive for the Rays.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

RHP Michael Wacha

2020 Statistics: 1-4 record, 6.62 ERA, 37 K, 7 BB, 34 IP, 66 ERA+, 5.25 FIP, 9.8 K/9

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: 6-7 record, 4.74 ERA, 107 K, 45 BB, 114 IP, 8.4 K/9

Here’s the wild card of the bunch and the pitcher who Rays fans are arguably most excited to see pitch this season. It’s a weird statement to make considering what he did last season in Queens with the Mets and his fall-off since his fame in St. Louis, but Wacha is a really exciting name to watch.

He’s looked really good in spring training, for what that’s worth, locating his pitches well and looking like a completely different pitcher than seasons previous. Also, it’s worth noting that despite the shortened season, Wacha’s K/9 rate was the highest in his career with 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings on the season. 

His 5.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio was easily a career-high, two positive signs to take into the 2021 season. Wacha had previous success with the Cardinals, and while you shouldn’t expect that to come back in full form in Tampa Bay, it’s very likely that he could surprise and be a dark-horse candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

2021 Surprises & Expectations

These five pitchers will not be the only five starters that the Rays will use during the 2021 season, and that’s less of a surprise just due to the sheer amount of arms that are in the minor leagues.

Right now, there’s a legitimate starting rotation sitting in Triple-A that Tampa Bay could use for this season if they wanted to: Josh Fleming, Brent Honeywell, Shane McClanahan, Brendan McKay and Luis Patino to name a few. Four of those five arms have already seen time on an MLB mound, including starting experience from Fleming, McKay and Patino.

With McKay coming off injury, McClanahan expected to stay down until at least May to allow the Rays another year of control of him, and Patino not having faced hitters above Single-A before getting hoisted up to the Padres last season, these players have some time to grow. 

Fleming was a shocking reassignment to be honest as he looked good on the mound last season, though he experienced some problems during the postseason. Rays fans shouldn’t have to wait long for these arms to be up on the big league club soon.

The Rays have done incredibly well to replace the arms lost during this offseason, not breaking the bank and finding some potential Comeback Player of the Year candidates. With the mystery surrounding Glasnow, adding that third pitch is only going to help him become that much better on the mound.

You’ll see a lot of names this season, but you’ll see a lot of quality too, so expect a rotation that will still have firepower and expect to see a lot of young talent filter through in 2021.