The 2012 Tampa Bay Rays Starting Rotation

Friday January 13th, 2012

Rob Bland:  Starting pitching surplus.  This is a phrase that every Major League Baseball franchise wishes they could say they possess.  However, one team that is quickly becoming a power in the AL East, has just that.  The Tampa Bay Rays’ rise to success began in 2008 where they were crowned the American League champions.  Since then, they have won due mostly to their strong pitching.  A while back, I heard someone say that the Rays franchise is like an onion: peel one layer off, and there is another layer there waiting to blossom.  When they lost Carl Crawford, probably the best player in franchise history, to free agency, ultra prospect Desmond Jennings came to Tropicana Field.  When Matt Garza was traded to the Chicago Cubs, hyped pitching prospect Jeremy Hellickson took over the 5th spot of the rotation and finished the season with a 13-10 record and 2.95 ERA.  Oh, and he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award just to top it off.  The fact of the matter is the Rays have a scary rotation already in place, with David Price, James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and Hellickson.  

Before the 2011 season, Baseball America ranked Hellickson the #6 prospect in baseball, with Matt Moore coming in at #15.  Moore is a flame-throwing lefty who was called up to the Rays on September 12, 2011 in the middle of a pennant race.  Moore threw 9.1 innings, with 15 strikeouts to 3 walks, and a 2.89 ERA.  He then went on to pitch Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers, and threw 7 scoreless innings on 2 hits.  GM Andrew Friedman believed in his talent so much that he inked Moore to a 5-year, $14M contract that includes club options that would push the total value to $37.5M over 8 years.  Moore will only be 22 years old at the beginning of the season.  

Alex Cobb is another intriguing arm that is waiting in the minor leagues for his time to shine.  While he wasn’t included in the Rays’ Top 10 Prospects list before the 2011 season, he turned heads while pitching most of 2011 in AAA.  Cobb went 5-1 with a 1.87 ERA over 12 starts.  Cobb struck out 70 with 16 walks in 67.1 innings, showing plus command of an 89-93mph fastball.  Cobb projects to be an inning-eating work horse in the middle of a rotation.  While he ended up with 9 starts for the Rays with success, there doesn’t seem to be a spot open for him just yet.  

So it appears as though the Rays have 7 viable starting options at the moment. SEVEN. Most teams can’t even say they have four that they are actually happy with. A true embarrassment of riches!  

Talent is not the only thing to consider when putting a team together, and the strapped-for-cash Rays are no exception.  Even with a team salary of just over $42M, the Rays still clinched the AL Wild Card and reached the postseason for the third time in four years in the loaded AL East.  James Shields has club options for 2012-2014, with a value of $7.5M, $9M and $12M, respectively.  For a team with such a low payroll, a pitcher like James Shields does not quite seem to fit the team’s plans.  It might be in the best interest of the club to be looking for suitable trade partners to potentially shore up the team’s needs at 1B and/or SS.  

The reality is that the Rays believe that Moore is Major League-ready now, hence the multi-year contract.  So therefore, one of the five starters from 2011 is either on his way out, or on his way to the bullpen.  Price, Hellickson and Moore are locks for the rotation it would seem.  Even though he missed all of May and half of June with back tightness after a rough start to the season in which he gave up 23 runs in 31.1 innings over 6 starts, Niemann had a very strong July and August. Niemann finished 2011 with an 11-7 record and 4.06 ERA.  Davis signed a contract prior to the 2011 season that would pay him $10.1M through 2014, with options from 2015-2017 for $7M, $8M, and $10M, respectively.  Davis was 11-10 in 2011 with a 4.45 ERA.  The fact that his career ground ball rate is 37.8% and he has struck out under 6 batters per 9 innings doesn’t bode well for him.  Davis’s stats have regressed in the last two years, and with his contract doesn’t seem likely to net a large return if traded.  He could, however, find himself in a swingman type role to start the season.

In James Shields, the Rays have a HUGE trade chip.  Since 2007, he has averaged over 220 innings per season.  His career marks of 7.5 K/9 and 2.07 BB/9 to go along with a 44% ground ball rate make him a very good pitcher.  With 3-years of control remaining, at an average of under $10M per season, Shields could net the Rays a king’s ransom type return.  When Friedman traded Garza to the Cubs, he received outfielder Sam Fuld, SS Hak-Ju Lee (#6 prospect by Baseball America), RHP Chris Archer (#38 by BA), OF Brandon Guyer (#6 Rays prospect), and C Robinson Chirinos.  Comparing Garza’s 2010 season and Shields’ 2011 season shows that while Garza pitched well going 15-10 and 3.91 ERA, his peripheral stats don’t quite stack up.  Not only is Shields’ platform season greater, but his career statistics prove he has been the better pitcher.  With the exorbitant prices some teams are paying for frontline starting pitching (see Gio Gonzalez and Matt Latos), the Rays should certainly be looking into moving Shields.  

In all probability, the Rays rotation will start out as Price, Shields, Moore, Hellickson and Niemann, with Davis going to the bullpen, and Alex Cobb biding his time in AAA.  The Rays could play out the first few months of the season, and look to deal one of Shields, Niemann or Davis based on where they sit in the standings, and their personal performances.  Starting pitching surplus sure is a great problem to have.

***Today’s feature was prepared by our Baseball Writer, Rob Bland.  We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers.  You can also follow Blandy on Twitter***


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Posted on January 13, 2012, in MLB Teams: Articles and Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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