The Tampa Bay Rays have a penchant for letting key players leave, whether by trades or free agency. Every time, however, there is always a prospect ready to take that player’s place. The Rays only traded Matt Garza knowing that they had Jeremy Hellickson ready to step in. For B.J. Upton, it was Desmond Jennings and for James Shields it was Chris Archer. The Rays don’t rebuild–they trade somebody away and let two others walk yet they always find a way to contend with the new cast of characters. But what about David Price? It was nice to have Hellickson and Archer available to replace Garza and Shields, but the reason both trades were possible was because the Rays knew they had David Price at the top of the rotation. Now the security blanket is gone and the Rays face an uncertain reality with their ace in another uniform. Can the Rays’ rotation remain among the best in baseball without Price?
Excluding Price, the Rays’ rotation lacks a true ace and it does not even have a pitcher that has gone over 200 innings in his career. What it still has plenty of, though, is talent. Matt Moore still has things to work through, specifically his control, but he has better pure stuff than Price. He eats hitters with his fastball, and his changeup and curveball that both can be overbearing pitches as well. There were stretches of the season where Moore looked like an ace in the making, and with another season of development under his belt, 2014 could be the year where everything comes together. What’s scary, though, is that Moore and even Price were not the Rays’ best starter over the course of the year. That title belongs to Alex Cobb.
Cobb had a wild season, missing two months from a concussion, but when he was on the mound, he was dominant. His fastball may be the least exciting on the Rays’ staff, but with a dynamic split-change and a curveball that just keeps getting better, Cobb showed the arsenal to be another topflight starting pitcher. After just how good he was in 2013, there is a chance for regression next year. The league will start to figure him and it will be up to Cobb to adjust back. But Cobb has vastly exceeded everyone’s expectations since arriving in the major leagues, and the Rays are confident that Cobb will be a key pitcher in their rotation for years to come.
We talked before about Matt Garza getting traded following the 2010 season and Jeremy Hellickson taking his place. What was interesting, though, was that the Rays were willing to trade Garza despite James Shields coming off a disastrous year. The Rays knew Garza was not an ace, but he was a reliable 200-inning pitcher that could be relied upon for big games. The same description could have applied to Shields, but were the Rays confident enough that he would rebound? Evidentally they were, and they were proven right by Shields’ breakout year. Now the storyline is repeating itself with one key difference: Price is an ace, certainly not a number two. But like Shields when Garza was dealt, the Rays will trust Jeremy Hellickson to help pick up the slack.
Hellickson is coming off a rough season, but he actually registered career bests in strikeout rate and walk rate and improved his HR/9 over his 2012 season as well. Hellickson had a rough season, losing his ability to locate his fastball for starts at a time while seemingly suffering through a pyschological component in addition. But at the end of the day, he remains an extremely promising pitcher, and the Rays will trust him to get back on track in 2014. No pitcher as good as Hellickson can be that bad two years in a row. He may not pull a James Shields 2011, but if his fastball command rebounds to go along with his strong changeup and curveball that shows flashes, he will give Big Game James a run for his money.
Moore, Cobb, and Hellickson have a chance to be as good as any top three the Rays have ever had if they live up to their potential. The pitchers set to round out the rotation are nothing to scoff at as well. The Rays’ fourth starter will be Chris Archer. who has two plus pitches in his fastball and slider and looked unhittable when he mixed in his changeup as well. Then there are an array of options for the fifth starter spot. Jake Odorizzi was extremely impressive in his last several appearances for the Rays, showing off improved fastball command and secondary pitches that continue to improve. If Jeff Niemann returns, he could be a strong back-of-the-rotation option if he stays healthy. Alex Colome and Enny Romero will likely start the season back at Triple-A, but both have the power arsenals to be as good as any pitcher on the Rays’ staff when everything clicks. Finally, there are the sleepers: former top prospect Mike Montgomery, and fellow right-hander Merrill Kelly, who is coming off a breakout year at Triple-A. The Rays’ ace may be departing, but their starting depth has not changed–we just rattled off ten quality starting pitching options, with the top three giving the Rays’ rotation a chance to actually improve without Price if everything comes together. And of course, the Price trade will likely yield another promising pitching prospect, emphasizing even more that the Rays’ rotation is a gift that keeps on giving.
The Rays would love to keep David Price, and if it was at all possible, they would. However, is the difference between Price and next pitcher the Rays throw out there worth $15 million a year if not more? The Rays are ready to move on and are confident in the pitchers they still have with good reason. The rotation will lose some name recognition and other teams will not have to experience the chills that go down their spines when they face David Price, but the Rays still feature a bevy of talented pitchers and have no fear as the Price era in Tampa Bay comes to an end. The Rays always find a way, and saying they will do so again is not stubbornness or idealization but simply the most likely outcome.