Meet the fifth starter in the Rays rotation: Johnny Wholestaff

·MLB columnist

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Johnny tipped his chair back to two legs, surprised to be there, just as surprised to be found.

Earlier, when a clubhouse attendant was asked where the new starting pitcher was, he’d waved his hands across the room, ballplayers everywhere, and said, “You know, around.”

Johnny’s what’s known as a journeyman. A little work here, a little there, collect a check, move on to the next. Generally works cheap. Generally has a reasonable attitude about it. Goes about it quietly.

Johnny smiled wryly, unbothered by the criticism, proud to be a Tampa Bay Ray. Proud, after all these years, having been scorned for most of them, to have the first regular gig of that life.

“Pay no mind to the haters. Nothing better to do with their time. But when the stuff gets thick, where do they go? To me. When face of the franchise can’t pitch with a stuffy nose? Me. When lightning’s coming and somebody’s gotta stand out on that hill in metal shoes? Me. Well, I’m here. And I’ll take the ball every five days. Long as my name’s over this locker, on that lineup card, it’s all good.”

Johnny reached up and rapped a knuckle on the name plate. It read, “WHOLESTAFF.”

Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays recently named their fifth starter, who will pitch in the rotation alongside Chris Archer, Blake Snell, Nathan Eovaldi and Jake Faria. It won’t be a him. It’ll be a them.

In a unique move, the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen will act as the fifth starter in the pitching rotation. (AP)
In a unique move, the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen will act as the fifth starter in the pitching rotation. (AP)

It’s not, perhaps, for the reason you might think, other than the timing being reasonable. While the Rays did lose Alex Cobb to free agency, while they did trade Jake Odorizzi to Minnesota, while they did then have prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon suffer elbow injuries, they’d already been weighing the benefits of four starters followed by a bullpen day. According to vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom, the Rays believed the organization has great pitching depth, and that that depth has sufficient minor-league options, so that the bullpen rotation could extend all the way to Triple-A Durham.

The traditional bullpen day, called “Johnny Wholestaff” in baseball circles, is viewed as the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. That is, usually, the last option.

But beginning March 31 against the Boston Red Sox, and whenever necessary from there, for the entire season or for however long the plan seems viable, the Rays will call all available arms to duty.

As Johnny Wholestaff might inquire, what could possibly go wrong?

The Rays – Bloom, general manager Erik Neander, manager Kevin Cash, pitching coach Kyle Snyder, bullpen coach Stan Boroski – might rather ask, “Ah, but, what could go right?”

“Look, we recognize this is something that’s a little bit new and it hasn’t been stress-tested yet,” Bloom said Friday morning. “The so-called traditional way of putting together a pitching staff, that’s been battle-tested. We know what works well and we know where the soft spots are. I don’t think we should assume that just because that’s the conventional model that it’s necessarily the most robust way to put a pitching staff together. That configuration also taxes some guys sometimes. It also requires moves sometimes. We’re not under the illusion that this will be without its rocky points. But we also think that this has a chance to work as well and hopefully better.”

At least two clubs – the Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels – are considering the viability of six-man rotations. Even when Honeywell and De Leon were upright, the Rays examined their personnel – Archer, Eovaldi, Snell, Faria, and then a host of youngish pitchers with major league experience or sufficient minor league time – and in the weeks before camp opened chose the mound visit less traveled. That’ll probably mean big-league roles for the likes of Yonny Chirinos, Austin Pruitt, Andrew Kittredge, Anthony Banda, Hunter Wood and others, and maybe they’ll start one day and pitch the third and fourth innings five days after that, and the sixth inning the next day. There was an era, particularly in the time of four-man rotations, when pitchers earned their way to the rotation through the bullpen. So, perhaps, the Rays’ way is new, and old, and different. Mostly different.

“We can’t be afraid to do something that’s a little different if we think it’s best for the group we have,” Bloom said. “Just because it’s something we haven’t done in the past or that others haven’t done in the past, if we think it’s going to best serve our guys and give us the chance to win as many games as possible and get the most out of this group that’s here, you can’t be afraid to do something that’s a little bit different.”

The new design would seem to risk exhaustion, given there’s hardly any predicting bullpen usage. A couple short starts around a scheduled bullpen day could prove hazardous to the outcome of those games, of course, but also to the arms of those being asked to pitch more often than accustomed. The Rays’ early schedule is airy, however. The club will have five days off in April, and three more in the first 10 days of May. The pitchers will be monitored for fatigue, as is the organizational norm. And, replacements will be standing by in Durham. High end, given the current schedule, the bullpen could make as many as 22 starts over the season.

“We know we need to have a degree of humility about this, as we do with everything we do,” Bloom said. “This game demands that of all of us. We know we’re going to learn things as we go along. We also know a lot of thought and planning is going to give this the best chance to succeed and it’s also going to make sure we do right by our pitchers, which is very important to us.”

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