It is tough being a pitching prospect in the Rays organization. No matter how well a prospect pitches, it takes an injury or a trade to get him a chance. And when his opportunity comes around, there are so many options available that he may never get a second chance if he blows it. For Alex Colome, the make-or-break time is right now. Colome will make only one start, but whether he catches eyes or gets hit hard may determine whether he ends up as a starter or reliever.
Alex Cobb, the pitcher who Colome is replacing, has been incredible this season but needed plenty of luck just to crack the Rays’ rotation. In 2011, Jeff Niemann had to suffer a back injury and Andy Sonnanstine had to sputter replacing him for Cobb to get an extended chance. And even after pitching well, Cobb was a non-contender a rotation spot the following spring training and had to begin the season back in Triple-A before a second Niemann injury finally got him in the big leagues for good. For Colome, the circumstances are different as he is a better prospect with more electrifying stuff than Cobb ever had. But in a way, that may only make his predicament a little tougher.
Alex Cobb was a starting pitcher all the way, not possessing the stuff to be a dominant relief pitcher. Colome, on the other hand, has a mid-90’s fastball that could hit the high-90’s in relief and the stuff to potentially close down the line. Colome has the arsenal to start. He pairs his fastball with an excellent cutter, a changeup that keeps getting better and better, and a good curveball as well. His four pitches give him plenty of options when attacking both righty and lefty batters and he has the ability to blow by anyone. However, his major issue has been controlling and commanding his pitches. Colome has never had terrible control, walking 4.2 or less batters per 9 innings the last five years, but he still finds himself struggling through a lot of deep counts and getting out of games earlier than he would like. He also makes too many mistakes with his secondary pitches that hitters can take advantage of, especially the second or third time through the order. Starting pitchers are exponentially more valuable than relievers, and the Rays would love if Colome can remain a starter. At the same time, though, his flaws combined with the Rays starting depth is going to make that awfully tough.
No one likes making decisions based on small sample sizes. No matter how Colome pitches today, we can be almost certain that he will get more starts down the line. However, will the Rays make excuses for him if he fails knowing how good he could be in relief? Even if David Price and Roberto Hernandez depart after the season, the Rays will still have a starting rotation of Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Chris Archer, Jeff Niemann, and Jake Odorizzi. Colome and Alex Torres are also options, but they could very well be options number seven and eight and maybe even farther back if Price nets the Rays another talented pitching prospect. Next spring training is going to be very interesting with so many talented young pitchers (and Niemann) competing for five rotation spots and each pitcher needs every advantage they can get to nail down a spot. Next season, Colome could end up in the big league rotation, in the bullpen, or back at Triple-A. This start right here will only be a small part of the decision process, but it could make all the difference.
Alex Colome was callen up as a reliever, a possible preview of the role that many evaluators believe he will end up in the long term. But now, but a stroke of luck, Colome has a golden opportunity in front of him to prove that he deserves to be a starting pitcher for the future. There will likely be other chances and there’s nothing wrong with Colome ending up in the bullpen if that’s the way things turn out. But when Colome is a starter or relief pitcher in the major leagues in a few years, there’s a reasonable chance that we could trace back where he ended up to how promising he looked in this start today.