The Tampa Bay Rays enter 2013 with quite possibly their most talented team to date. However, we can take nothing for granted at this point and there are still reasons for worry. The starting rotation looks to be one of the Rays’ biggest strengths. But it is on the injury front that everything could so quickly fall apart.
In the last ten months, each of the Rays’ top 5 starting pitchers has missed time from an injury. David Price missed time with a triceps strain, Matt Moore with elbow inflammation, Alex Cobb after getting hit by a line drive, Chris Archer with an ankle injury while he was still at Triple-A, and Jeremy Hellickson with the arthroscopic elbow surgery that will sideline him until at least mid-May. You can say that last season was an outlier–Jeff Niemann was the only Rays starter to get hurt from Scott Kazmir in 2009 to Hellickson in 2012–but each pitcher comes with his concerns, and the Rays need all of them to find a way to stay on the mound.
The injury that sidelined Price from May 15th to July 2nd was described as a “triceps” strain. But in September of 2012, the injury that made him miss a start was described as “shoulder” soreness. Whether or not triceps was a euphemism for shoulder, the triceps is connected to the shoulder joint in the arm and an injury there is a big deal. You also have to wonder why Price never got the type of offers the Rays were looking for in exchange for him, and the hint of a shoulder injury could have been a reason for that. Nevertheless, prospective trade suitors could definitely have been overzealous in that regard. Price was incredible after coming back, and the Rays are counting on him to be their ace. But since they are keeping him, they are banking on him delivering another excellent year and silencing his doubters. Their fate this season and his value as a trade asset following the year hang in the balance.
Behind Price, the Rays have a trio of pitchers in Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer, who are coming off big seasons but have injury concerns to overcome. All three managed ERA’s below 3.30 in 2013, but Moore had the most major league innings of the three with just 150.1. Moore enters 2013 with not just control issues to deal with but also his health. The good news for Moore: the elbow inflammation was the first arm injury of his professional career. The line drive that took Alex Cobb out for two months was the second injury of his career that was entirely out of his control. In 2011, it was a bizarre rib issue that ended his season in August. Other than a brief blister issue this year, Cobb has never had an arm injury before. But adding in an oblique injury from 2010, Cobb has now missed time with health issues three of the last four years. Archer, meanwhile, saw Jake Odorizzi pass him by to replace Price because he was shelved with an ankle issue. Archer also missed time with an oblique strain in 2012, and he enters 2014 trying to both avoid a sophomore slump and his third straight year with an injury. Moore, Cobb, and Archer will be critical pitchers for the Rays in 2014 and beyond, but each of them has yet to prove his durability.
Jeremy Hellickson, meanwhile, is in the worst position of anyone. His quest to rebound from his disastrous 2013 got significantly tougher when we heard of his elbow surgery, and now all the pressure will be on Hellickson when he returns to the mound. At this time last year, Hellickson was a pitcher who found a way to succeed in the major leagues for two straight seasons. Now he is a question mark both for his performance and his health. The Rays need Hellickson to find himself when he comes back. If he does not, they will enter a situation they will not want to be in with an underperforming player whose salary continues to escalate.
The Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation has the ability to be among the best in baseball this coming season. However, we need see them take the ball every fifth day and pitch the way they are capable before that actually falls into place. Can the Rays’ starting pitchers put their health concerns to rest?