The biggest competition heading into Spring Training is not a competition needed because of a hole, but a competition needed because of an excess. That’s right, I’m talking about the competition for the starting rotation. The Rays have two spots that could be decided this spring, and four very worthy candidates.
We already know the Rays’ starting rotation will be very good next season. With James Shields, David Price, and Jeremy Hellickson as the top three guys, the Rays are set. All they have to do is pick two pitchers from four very good guys to go behind them.
The best candidate to take the four spot is stud prospect Matt Moore. Moore impressed everyone last season, making an amazing start in the ALDS against the Rangers last season. Moore led the Rays to a game one win, pitching seven innings of shutout ball and allowing only two hits. Not only did Moore have that one great performance,but he also pitched well in three regular season games. That’s not even mentioning his minor league season, going 12-3 with a 1.92 ERA with Durham and Montgomery. We know Moore will be great, but the question is, will he get to start the season with the big club?
Wade Davis is another leading candidate for one of the spots. The Rays obviously think highly of Davis, as they signed him to a long term contract extension last season. Davis had a decent year in 2011, going 11-10 with a 4.45 ERA. His ERA was a bit high, but Davis is still a good power pitcher who would go well in the Rays rotation.
Jeff Niemann could be the biggest question mark of the four. Niemann got off to a blistering start last season, but got injured and after coming back, struggled mightily. Niemann ended up not to bad numbers wise, going 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA in 2011. The biggest question heading into the season will be whether he will be the pitcher he was at the beginning of last season or the one he was at the end of the season?
Alex Cobb has the least chance to make the team of the four. Cobb is a great pitcher, but he was hindered by his season ending injury at the end of last season. Cobb only made nine starts for the Rays last year as an injury fill in, but he made the most of those starts. Cobb went 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA. His performance really exceeded expectations, since there really weren’t any when he came up. He started as a one start and down guy, but while he struggled in that start, he showed promise that got him the call back.
Spring training will be big for this competition, as all four could get themselves a spot with a great spring. We will just have to wait and see how the spring practices and exhibitions go before we know who will pitch behind the Rays stud top three.
While the Rays have four starters now, Andrew Friedman has said he will continue to actively shop for a deal to get it down to three. Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann could easily be traded before the season starts to make this decision easier. If a deal is done, I would hope Niemann would be the one to go, as he is the most expensive of the four starters.
It is tough to tell how this battle will play out, but I see Matt Moore getting the four spot. I think he is just too good to send down. The Rays have been known to send down prospects and call them up early in the season to delay service time, but since the Rays have signed Moore to an extension, they have nothing to lose. I would expect Moore to be in the four spot at the beginning of the year.
As for the five spot, I would like to say Wade Davis will win, but Jeff Niemann will most likely get the spot. This spot will be completely determined by spring training performance. I have Niemann penciled in for now because of his expensive contract. The Rays aren’t going to pay Niemann $2.75 million and send him to Durham, unless Cobb or Davis have an amazing spring.
We will see this spring how things shake out, but no matter the outcome, Rays fans should be very comfortable with the starting rotation heading into the season. The Rays will have one of the best rotations in baseball, no matter who pitches at the four and five spots.
Robbie has been previewing how Moore, Davis, Niemann, and Cobb will pitch in 2012 for the Rays if they’re given rotation spots. For more specific information on what to expect from each of those pitchers, please click the links on their names to see those posts.