Jeremy Hellickson will be out until mid-May and the Tampa Bay Rays are not too worried about replacing him. The reason: they had Jake Odorizzi as a big league-ready starter struck at Triple-A, and the injury opened up a spot for him.But what if injury or sub-par performance occurs? Last year, David Price, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb all spent time on the DL while Jeremy Hellickson and Roberto Hernandez did not pitch as expected. Jeff Niemann was set to be in the bullpen, but shoulder surgery ended his season before it began. Then there were Chris Archer and Alex Colome, who missed time with injury in the minor leagues, rendering them incapable of requiring relief for the major league team for a time. That marks eight starters who either were injured or had reason to be replaced. Yes, the Rays have plenty of starting depth, but do they have enough quality starters to survive as well as they did last season?
Beyond their current starting five, the Rays have Colome, Mike Montgomery, Enny Romero, Matt Andriese, and Merrill Kelly set to inhabit their Triple-A rotation. But each of those five have their flaws. Colome has been injury-prone and continues to struggle commanding his fastball. Montgomery was once a top prospect, but he hasn’t pitched to expectations in four years and is more realistically a bullpen candidate. Romero is talented, but he also has command issues and needs a full year at Triple-A. Andriese may be closer to ready, but more time at Triple-A would greatly help his development. Then there is Kelly, who broke out in 2013 but was neither added to the Rays’ 40-man roster nor selected in the Rule 5 Draft, telling you what you need to know about how teams view him. Odorizzi is a legitimate major league starting pitcher. But while their Triple-A rotation has potential, the Rays could use a veteran starter that can give them solid innings if need be. Let’s take a look at the options on the market that the Rays could resort to and see if the right fit exists.
A.J. Burnett- The Rays are interested in Burnett and he is a great pitcher if they can afford him, but he will almost surely sign elsewhere. A signing Burnett would be about the only reason that Odorizzi would start 2014 back at Triple-A.
Jeff Karstens- Karstens, 31, pitched extremely well for the Pittsburgh Pirates between 2011 and 2012, managing a 3.59 ERA in 253 innings pitched. However, rotation cuff surgery took out Karstens for 2013, and despite being supposedly healthy now, he is likely looking at a minor league contract for this season. Karstens represents a pitcher who has experienced major league success and could be available on the cheap. He even has some experience in the bullpen and could compete for the Rays’ last bullpen spot as well as provide rotation insurance. Karstens would be a great option for the Rays if healthy, but he is a good enough pitcher that some team will likely offer him a better opportunity than the Rays can.
Clayton Richard- Before getting demolished (7.11 ERA) in 2013, Richard had managed a 3.88 ERA for the Padres from 2010 t0 2012, topping 200 innings twice. Richard is coming off shoulder surgery, but a less serious one than Karstens and Niemann, and he could contribute to a major league team early on this season. The reasons not to sign him: the injury and the fact that his stuff has never been too impressive. But if the demand is so little that Richard would be willing to reestablish his value at Triple-A, the Rays could come calling.
Roy Oswalt- Oswalt was lit up (8.63 ERA) in 32.1 innings pitched for the Colorado Rockies last season, but he has found plenty of success as a starter and could be open to a bullpen role. If he will take a minor league deal, the Rays would have to consider throwing him into the mix for both starting and relieving. At this point, however, you have to wonder what he has left.
Jon Garland, Aaron Harang, Jason Marquis, Jake Westbrook, Barry Zito- All five pitchers are in basically the same boat as pitchers who had some great years but are not nearly what they used to be. They would provide a starter who has “been there before,” but it is questionable that they are better than anyone who the Rays already have. Could the Rays ink one of them nevertheless? Couldn’t hurt to bring a veteran to spring training on a team whose most senior starter (David Price) is 28.
Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens- Both Hanson and Jurrjens looked to be promising starters for the Atlanta Braves as recently in 2011, but Hanson’s stuff has deteriorated while the league figured out Jurrjens and both have questionable futures despite being 27 and 28 years of age respectively. The Rays could sign one of them as a reclamation project (Hanson would make sense), but neither is a legitimate big league starting option right now.
Jeff Niemann- It would be nice to bring Niemann back, but he is still recovering from shoulder surgery and would not help rotation depth for at least a few months.
Minor League Free Agents- The most interesting of the bunch are Nick Blackburn, Graham Godfrey, and Armando Galarraga. All three would likely head to Triple-A, but they wouldn’t be an upgrade over what the Rays already have.
The good news for the Tampa Bay Rays is that there are veteran starters available for them to sign. The bad news is that they do not have a good enough opportunity to offer that type of pitcher they are looking for, and their remaining options are no better than what they already have. Expect the Rays to sign an experienced starting pitcher, but at the end of the day, their fate in the case of injuries will be in the hands of their prospects at Triple-A. The Rays have to hope that the pitchers they have will be enough.