Inside The Rays Spring Training: Rotation

In part three of his spring training preview, ESPNFlorida.com Insider Tommy Rancel takes a look at the Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation

Unable to spend freely on the open market, the Tampa Bay Rays have built the core of their pitching staff through the draft and via trade. In fact, all 162 games last season were started by a pitcher drafted by the organization and no free agent pitcher has started a game for the franchise during the Andrew Friedman Era. In conjunction with a superb defense and a pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field, the staff finished 2011 with the second lowest ERA in the American League (3.58) with the talented rotation posting an AL-best 3.53 ERA.

As a result of solid talent acquisition, the Rays ended the season with more qualified major-league starters than slots in the rotation. Conventional wisdom suggested they would move one of those starters to upgrade their offense; however, the front office was able to add Carlos Pena and Luke Scott without compromising the depth of the rotation. While they still have seven starters for five spots, it is always better to have more pitching than not enough. There is always the chance for an opportunistic Friedman to deal one of his starters in March should another team come calling, but as we have seen before, the Rays makes deal on their own terms and not for the sake of making a move.

While Friedman has been able to build his rotation with precision, bullpen construction is largely a crapshoot. Year-to-year reliever performance is extremely volatile with only a handful of relief aces able to produce at high levels on a consistent basis. Of course, that type of reliever costs money and the Rays are unable to gamble with multi-million dollar contracts by playing reliever roulette.

Instead, Friedman and Co. have mastered the art of the one-year deal, and developed a process for finding flawed –yet talented – arms who can be acquired for less than they are actually worth. Following in the steps of Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, and Rafael Soriano, Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta were underpaid and underappreciated arms that the Rays cultivated into an effective, high-leverage tandem last season. The 2012 bullpen is much more stabilized than the 2011 version; however, there are some risk/rewards arms that could swing the pendulum one way or the other. More bullpen discussion will come in our next installment, but for now let us take a Tampa Bay’s talented rotation.

James Shields – Followers of advanced metrics pegged Shields as a prime candidate for positive regression after disappointing 2010 season. It would not be long before mainstream audiences caught on to the phrase “regression to the mean.” After leading the league in hits, earned runs, and home runs allowed in 2010, the right-hander led the league in complete games (11) and shutouts (4) last season. En route to a third-place finish in the Cy Young vote, he was named to the All-Star game and set a career-best in traditional marks like wins (16) and ERA (2.82) while posting excellent peripheral marks in terms of defensive-independent metrics like strikeouts and walks. Some may point to a 46-inning increase in workload as a cause for concern going forward; however, a more efficient and effective Shields threw just 225 more pitches in the 2011 regular season than he did in 2010.

Not all of Shields’ success from last season was a product of improved luck. He spent the offseason ironing out inefficiencies in his delivery and controlled the running game with 12 pick-offs. In addition to the work on his mechanics, Shields was the sensei of pitching backwards or “Pitching 2.0” as Joe Maddon called it, throwing his signature changeup as well as a fantastic curveball in traditional fastball counts. While it was clear he was not as bad as he was in 2010, he probably pitched a little above his head in 2011. That said, with a high worth ethic, and an advanced knowledge of pitching, he should have another extremely solid season in 2012.

Jeremy Hellickson – The 2011 AL Rookie of The Year, Hellickson, posted an impressive 2.95 ERA in his first full season. That said, his peripheral statistics suggest negative regression ahead. The good news is the 24-year-old possesses attributes that may help stave off a sophomore slump. His .220 batting average on balls in play was well below the league average and will likely increase going forward. Meanwhile, if his ability to induce pop-ups at a high rate is a legitimate skill and not statistical noise, he may outperform the league average on a consistent basis.

For a pitcher who struck out better than a batter per inning as a minor leaguer, his 5.57 K/9 was rather disappointing. On the other hand, Hellickson continued to get whiffs at a rate above the league average. Perhaps with better sequencing, he could get some more punch outs. Speaking of sequencing, Hellickson, like Shields, was a believer of “Pitching 2.0,” using his highly effective changeup and breaking ball in fastball counts. Looking ahead, he will need to improve versus the platoon split –again perhaps better selection – and continue to miss bats in bunches. Though regression is a legitimate possibility, the tools to defend against it could be legitimate as well.

David Price – On the surface, Price took a step back in 2011 after finishing second in the AL Cy Young Award vote in 2010. The lefty followed up his 19-win season with a 12-13 record and added nearly a full run to his ERA. However, maintaining 2.72 ERA on an annual basis is not easy, and a 3.49 ERA while pitching most of the time against talented AL East lineups is still very good.

Results aside, Price was actually a better pitcher in 2011 than he was in 2010. He increased his strikeout rate while decreasing his walks. He expanded his repertoire slightly to include more changeups and cutters, relying less on his fastball. The development of the changeup and cutter could be keys for Price as the off-speed offering was effective going against the platoon split. Despite the 2011 results, Price heads into 2012 as a better pitcher than ever before. If his good processes continue, the results should soon follow.

Wade Davis – Davis has not lived up to expectations in his first two seasons, pitching slightly below the league average in 352 innings. The most concerning part of his game has been a lack of strikeouts and whiffs. After posting solid numbers in the minor leagues, he has struck out less than six batters per nine over the last two seasons. He came to the big leagues with a good fastball and a solid curveball, but has seen his velocity fluctuate and the effectiveness of his secondary options fade since then. In addition to the inconsistently in performance, he has missed time with arm injuries.

Deemed healthy in late July after missing 15 days with a strained forearm, Davis returned with a more effective breaking ball. Perhaps with increased health and confidence, it can become an out pitch – something he has lacked. He has also toyed with a cut-fastball; perhaps to combat some of the reverse-splits he shows at times. Still, he may fall victim to the numbers crunch and be moved to the bullpen or traded this spring. If he remains in the rotation, the hope is his stuff returns and he can bring a positive return on the $12.6 million investment the organization made in him last season.

Jeff Niemann – Injuries have made for an inconsistent performance from Niemann. When healthy, he is an above-average starter with a hammer curveball and a split-finger that can miss bats. Unfortunately, back problems limited him to 135.1 innings last season, and when he was off…he was way off.

A healthy Niemann has the potential of a middle-of-the-rotation starter for most teams, but for the Rays, he has become somewhat expendable. Although he has performed better than Davis over the past two seasons, he does not have the same cost certainty or upside. With that said, he is the most likely to be moved if a deal can be made before opening day.

Matt Moore - The top pitching prospect in baseball, Moore did not disappoint in his brief big-league debut. In 19.1 innings (regular and post season), he struck out 23 batters while walking just six. Equipt with effortless delievery that allows him to hit the high-90s with relative ease, Moore is the most complete pitching prospect in Rays’ history.

While he possesses similar talent to David Price, the younger lefty is a much more polished pitcher at the ripe age of 22. As Price continues to develop secondary options, Moore already posseses two plus-pitches beyond the fastball. He throws a good breaking ball in the mid-80s and an extremely effective changeup that is harder than most others. The off-speed offering will keep right-handers honest and make him strong against hitters on both sides of the plate. It will be tough to temper expectations, and there will be a speed bump or two along the way; however, even whenMoore struggles, his stuff and advanced development will prevent slumps from lingering. With an eight-year extension signed this offseason, the New Mexico native will be a mainstay in Rays’ rotation for the better part of the next decade

Alex Cobb – Similar to Jeremy Hellickson and James Shields in style (changeup/curveball), Cobb was highly effective in 52.2 innings last season as a rookie. Forced in to duty as the team’s sixth starter, he showed an advanced feel for pitching, making adjustments on the fly and using his secondary options to set-up the opposition. He will be overshadowed by the flashier prospects (Matt Moore), but has a legitimate future as an MLB starter.

Season-ending surgery to relieve a blood clot cut his 2011 short and could cost him a chance to make the majors out of camp this spring. For all the good he showed, he has just over 100 innings of experience above the Double-A level and has not pitched in a game since early August. With plenty of options available, the Rays do not have to rush Cobb to the big leagues and can save his service time for when they need him to fill a rotation spot full-time.

Alexander Torres – If Cobb is to become the Rays sixth starter iin 2012, Torres would be 6a. Torres also has the look of an MLB starter; however, with the Rays, is likely headed for more development at the minor-league level in 2012. A smaller-framed lefty, he shows good velocity and solid secondary options in the form of a slider and changeup. Acquired in the Scott Kazmir trade, he is a bit Kazmir-like in the way of needing more command and becoming more economical with his pitches. Even if he and Cobb are not needed in the rotation this season, both could help later in the season as members of the bullpen when rosters expand.

Next up in the series: Bullpen

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