David Price was supposed to be traded this offseason. Against popular belief, he was not. Predicting what Tampa Bay Rays GM, Andrew Friedman, might do is always a tricky proposition. Everyone assumed Price would be traded. Only a sucker would have bet against the cash strapped Rays flipping Price for a boatload of prospects as they did with James Shields. I checked my phone constantly, curious who we might get in return. As it turns out, Rays fans received the best Christmas gift of all–Price remained a Tampa Bay Ray.
It is probably wrong to take things for granted with the Rays’ front office, given that it never does as expected. However, the fact remains that the Rays probably won’t be able to ink Price to a long-term deal and he is two years away from free agency. When that void is left, who will step in and take his place? Who is the next Rays ace?
An ace not only has to be a great pitcher, but a teacher as well. He has to want the ball in the big game and battle it out when he doesn’t have his best stuff. When he is on the mound in an important game, security has to be called to get him off. David Price demonstrated that last season in game 163 versus Texas. From start to finish, it was his game. Let’s take a look at the candidates to pitch at the top of the Rays’ rotation once Price departs.
The consensus has to pick Matt Moore. He is sublimely talented. An easy delivery and a plus fastball help state Moore’s case. Hitters hit a measly .216 against Moore in 2013. Hits per 9 have fallen from 8.0 in 2012 to 7.1 in ‘13. However, his strikeout rate dipped and his walk rate ballooned to 4.5 per 9. No one hits him that well as a result of a filthy arsenal. But if you’re patient enough, Moore will run his pitch count up with too many walks. Moore threw more pitches outside the strike zone than inside it four out of six months last season as his control came and went without warning. When he did throw his pitches in the zone, hitters weren’t hitting them all that much, but can Moore do that more consistently? This spring, Matt Moore has been working hard. He reverted to previous training methods to recapture his velocity and regain the control that left him at times. Moore is not far from ace status. With a healthy elbow, this may be the season where Moore could break through.
Alex Cobb has all the tools to be an ace. He learned from one of the best big game pitchers, James Shields. Moreover, Cobb is a teacher. This spring, Alex taught Jake Odorizzi an off-speed pitch. Being unafraid to pass on knowledge is a quality that makes leaders. Cobb also is a battler. He finds ways to stay in games, even when his stuff isn’t working. A line drive off the head sidelined him for two months but did not derail his season. The wild card game versus the Cleveland Indians showed he could step up and be an ace type pitcher. Although his outing wasn’t quite the masterpiece Price’s was, aces aren’t born–they develop.
Cobb’s strikeouts per 9 have jumped in each of his three years in the league. In 2013, his K/9 was 8.4, while Moore’s was 8.6. Cobb is not a strikeout pitcher like Moore, but that is a telling stat.His sinker, split-change, and curve all induce a lot of groundballs, so his success will somewhat depend on the quality of his defense. He has yet to break the 200 innings pitched mark–but for that matter, neither has Moore. As a pitcher who gets contact early in the count and works deep into games, Cobb’s style of pitching makes it more likely he will reach that mark before Moore.
Can Cobb pitch the type of game David Price did against Texas? He already did in that game versus Cleveland. Matt Moore may have the most upside of anyone on the Rays’ staff, but Cobb is developing into a big game pitcher and quite possibly an ace.
Jeremy Hellickson fell far and hard last season. Watching Hellickson pitch last year, he looked lost. Now elbow surgery will sideline him until at least mid-May–but it also gives him a chance to reset himself and his state of mind. How he approaches hitters and his pitch selection need to be addressed as well. While his potential is still in place, Jeremy Hellickson right now isn’t vying for the ace position. First he has to return to the mound and prove that he can be a pitcher the Rays can rely on again.
Chris Archer is an interesting case. He is not ready to be a frontline starter, but his stuff certainly suggests he can get there. Archer doesn’t get rattled. In 2013, Archer posted the lowest walk rate of his professional career in his rookie season in the major leagues. Baseball Prospect Nation rated Archer’s control and command at 40, a below average mark. Lowering his walk total in his first full season says Chris Archer won’t be content just being in the show. A plus-plus fastball and an equally effective slider got him through his first year. Imagine the possibilities if he continues developing his changeup! Right-handers hit a measly .176, while lefties did a more respectable .261. The change could go a long way to neutralizing lefties.
Not content with just being in the big leagues, Archer has taken steps this spring to improve his game. Given his stuff and determination, it may not be long before Archer emerges as another number one type starter.
And the winner is…
The fun thing about the Tampa Bay Rays is that there is never just one choice. Each of their starting five is ace material, with more potential options in the minors. At this point, Alex Cobb is most likely the next ace of the Tampa Bay Rays, but Moore and Archer have the repertoires to be even better and Hellickson cannot be counted out either. It will be exciting to see how all of the Rays’ starters develop, and by the time Price leaves, the odds are that someone will be ready to take his place.