From the 2007 MLB Draft, the Rays received two pitchers as talented as anyone in baseball and critical to their success this season: David Price and Matt Moore. Getting those two in the same draft was a major stroke of luck for the Rays, and it was one that could continue to reverberate for a very long time. At one point, though, it looks like the Rays were going to pull an even bigger coup because even while Price and Moore stood head and shoulders over the rest, Nick Barnese and Joseph Cruz were not all that far behind.
For a while, it was a very interesting debate—who was the better prospect, Nick Barnese or Matt Moore? Moore always had the explosive arsenal, the electric mid-90’s fastball and the devastating breaking ball, but Barnese, picked 5 rounds earlier in the 3rd round of the ’07 draft, had the polish, the composure, and still awfully good stuff. His fastball stayed in the low-90’s but he threw it for strike after strike, and he paired it with an unconventional though still effective slurve and a changeup that had its moments. And in the low minors, Barnese was better. While Moore was striking people out like there was no tomorrow but also walking more than his fair share, Barnese managed a 2.45 ERA at Short Season-A, a 2.53 ERA at Low-A, and a 3.02 ERA at High-A, not blowing hitters away but throwing strikes and keeping hitters off-balance. However, none of it mattered because his shoulder issue just never went away. It bothered him at the end of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, even as he pitched well, and while everyone just tried to focus on how well he did on the field and hope that the coming year would be the one where he finally stayed completely healthy and broke out, the story kept looping in circles and when he stopped spinning, he wasn’t the same. He pitched while not at 100% in 2011 on the way to his worst full season as a pro but that was nothing compared to his 2012, when more shoulder problems sidelined him until late-June and Barnese came back a shadow of his former self. The Rays just kept waiting, hoping that he would finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, but this camp it finally hit them that Barnese’s shoulder wasn’t getting any better, and the promise he had displayed for so long was gone.
Joe Cruz was a lottery ticket prospect from the start, selected way down in the 30th round of the 2007 draft out of junior college. His humble beginnings didn’t matter, though, when his fastball reached the mid-90’s and his results were excellent from the start, including a 2010 season at High-A Charlotte that saw him go 13-6 with a 2.85 ERA and a 131-39 strikeout to walk ratio in 142 innings pitched. Cruz was never the caliber of prospect of Price, Moore, or even Barnese–after his fastball, he featured a decent slow breaking ball and a changeup he could never get a consistent feel for. But thanks to his great fastball, Cruz always looked to have the ability to be a solid contributor to the Rays’ team, whether out of the bullpen or as a back-of-the-rotation starter who could flash dominance every once in a while. When your 30th round pick turns into a player like that, you have to be ecstatic. But while we all love a good underdog story, there’s always a reason why they go there, in Cruz’s case a delivery with a lot of effort that put pressure on his shoulder, and unfortunately, that caught up to Cruz. He struggled in 2011 while dealing with shoulder issues and then had a repeat performance in 2012, and as time passed, his tantalizing stuff began to appear less and less often and the injury became something that it looked like he would never get by. Things happen and expectations change, and in Cruz’s case he quickly became a much more impressive pitcher than his draft slot would have indicated. Even though the Rays never could have hoped for Cruz to amount to anything when they drafted him, watching him pitch so well and come so close to reaching his potential only to fall apart as suddenly as he did had to sting.
On Wednesday, the Rays released Nick Barnese and Joseph Cruz from their minor league camp. The stories of Barnese and Cruz make it apparent just how fortunate the Rays have been to have so many pitchers pan out. We know that the Rays have always prided themselves on their pitching depth, both in the major leagues and among their prospects, knowing just how variable pitching prospects can be, but even then so much can go wrong and even the best pitchers and the most heartwarming stories just disappear into thin air before you know it. Just because the Rays and every team in baseball find ways to move on when top prospects fail doesn’t make the stories of those prospects any less depressing. All we can do now is wish best of luck of Barnese and Cruz moving forward, whether it’s in a different organization giving their dreams one more go or simply transitioning to regular life.