When you look at Matt Neil‘s numbers, it is perplexing that he was a free agent until the Tampa Bay Rays signed him on Thursday. In his three professional seasons, Neil is 17-15 with a 3.69 ERA in 67 appearances (60 starts), managing a 7.3 K/9, a 1.8 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 322 innings pitched. It’s not as though he is coming off a disastrous season–his ERA was 3.70 in 2013, and it never went above 3.90 in any of his three seasons. So why was Neil unsigned? Well, the Rays are about to find out, and if no reason comes to light, they may just end up with a steal.
Neil was a 29th round draft pick by the Florida Marlins in 2011 out of BYU, but the circumstances were a little bit strange–Neil was already 24 years old after a two-year Mormon mission. The fact that Neil was selected despite his age says a lot. The Marlins saw a 6’6″, 225 right-hander with room to improve and the chance to start making up for lost time in a hurry. Sure enough, Neil started his professional career in Short Season-A ball and wound up in High-A by the end of the year. In 2012, he moved up from High-A to Double-A. Then last season, he finally moved up to Triple-A over the course of the season, marking the first time in his career that he was younger than the league’s average age. Neil’s results at Triple-A were not as good as he would have hoped as he managed just a 4.47 ERA in 50.1 innings pitched, but he still had a 48-16 strikeout to walk ratio in those innings, something that cannot be ignored. Neil’s strikeout to walk ratio has never dipped below 2.50-to-1 at any of his stops in the minor leagues. The question, though, is whether Neil has the ability to keep that up, and for that, we look at his stuff.
When you see that a pitcher is 6’6″, your first thought has to be that he has a very good downward plane on his fastball. Instead, the 27 year old right-hander has just a 38.2% groundball rate, managing a below-average mark in every league he has played in. To find success, Neil has instead relied upon throwing his fastball in the 88-92 MPH range for strikes and setting up his two secondary pitches, a curveball and a changeup. Neil’s curveball features sharp downward action when Neil is at his best, and his changeup also has its moments. Neil’s arsenal does not blow you away, but his fastball and curveball are something to work with, and we know that the Rays are the best in the business at developing changeups.
It says something that the Rays decided to start Matt Neil at Double-A Montgomery, where he tossed 2.2 innings of one-run ball to earn the win on Friday night. They do think he needs work, and there is a real possibility that they try him out of the bullpen after he has started games his entire career. Despite Neil’s age, however, the Rays do see a player with potential, and they saw nothing to lose giving him a chance. Now more than ever, the Rays need pitching depth, and we will have to see if this Matt Neil signing makes a difference before the year is through.