Rays ace Blake Snell is set to undergo arthroscopic surgery in his left elbow, as per The Athletic’s Josh Tolentino (subscription required). The procedure will remove some a loose body from Snell’s elbow and will cost the southpaw at least four weeks of action, though he and the Rays “are confident he will pitch again this season.”
While Snell hasn’t been as dominant this year as he was during his Cy Young Award-winning 2018 season, Snell was still posting good numbers. In fact, as per ERA predictors such as xFIP (3.16 in 2018, 3.23 in 2019) and SIERA (3.30 in 2018, 3.50 in 2019), Snell was pitching just as well this season as he did last year. An increase in home run rate, however, has ballooned Snell’s ERA to 4.28 this season, plus he hasn’t gotten the strand rate and BABIP benefits that he enjoyed in 2018.
Overall, the left-hander has a 4.28 ERA, 12.1 K/9, and 3.89 K/BB rate over 101 frames this year, and he has been on a particular run of good form over his last four starts. The Rays have been able to stay competitive in the wild card race even without Snell at the top of his game, so it’s a particularly tough bit of news for the team that Snell will hit the injured list just as he has been getting his season on track.
With Snell out, Charlie Morton now stands as the only full-time healthy starting pitcher on the Tampa Bay roster. Yonny Chirinos has started most of his appearances but has also worked as a bulk pitcher behind an opener, while Tyler Glasnow is on the IL himself with a forearm problem and there is at least some doubt as to whether he’ll be able to return before season’s end.
Brendan McKay is probably the likeliest candidate to replace Snell, as the two-way star was optioned back to Triple-A last week following an impressive four-start beginning to his MLB career. McKay has already pitched 86 innings between the minors and big leagues this year, however, and since his previous season-high was only 78 1/3 frames (in 2018), Tampa isn’t likely to push McKay’s arm too much as a long-term answer this year.
In theory, McKay (with some judicious innings-management and some openers picking up the slack) could fill in long enough for Snell to get healthy. As Tolentino notes, Nathan Eovaldi ended up missing three months after undergoing a similar elbow procedure earlier this season, and while situations obviously vary from player to player, Snell’s four-week recovery timeline shouldn’t be set in stone.
As the trade deadline approaches, the Rays could seek out some pitching help, at least a second-tier veteran arm simply as an innings-eater to bail out the rotation while Snell recovers. Tampa Bay has been loath, however, to acquire such pitchers over the last two years, preferring to rely on in-house answers and their opener strategy rather than an innings-eater type. Being in the heat of a postseason race could adjust the Rays’ perspective, of course, particularly if a traditional starter could be had at a relatively low price. Alternatively, the Rays could also opt to make a big splash for a front-of-the-rotation type of arm, if they’re willing to give up the big prospect package such a hurler would naturally cost.