How do the Rays do it? They find values on the waiver wire, in the later rounds of the draft, and somehow they get players with the potential to turn into great major league players. That is especially the case with pitchers. Not everyone pans out, but constantly the Rays have pitchers with potential all across their system. Teams shied away from lefty Ryan Carpenter in the 2011 MLB Draft. The Rays were elated. They knew what they were doing when the selected him, and the results speak for themselves.
In 2008, Ryan Carpenter was a big, projectable 6’5″, 200 lefty coming out Cactus High School in Arizona. The Rays selected him in the 21st round of that year’s draft. Carpenter did not sign and headed to Gonzaga University. In 24 starts and 3 relief appearances his first two years at Gonzaga, Carpenter a posted a 5.46 ERA. But in his junior year he dominated, going 8-2 with a 2.63 ERA, 107 strikeouts (10.3 K/9), 33 walks (3.1 BB/9), and just 2 homers allowed (0.2 HR/9) in 14 starts, including 2 complete games and a shutout, and 96 IP. He won West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year. Carpenter’s stats made him look like at least a first three or four rounds pick. Instead, he slipped to the Rays in the 7th round. Why? Despite the fact that Carpenter was healthy all season, he experienced a drop in velocity towards the end of the season.
The Rays knew Carpenter. They had scouted and drafted him in 2008 and did the same in 2011. Carpenter is one of just 8 players who the Rays have selected more than once in the draft (Jason Hammel is one of the others). And apparently, with good reason.
As his velocity has come back, Carpenter has continued to pitch well. Carpenter throws a fastball in the low-90’s with nice late movement towards right-handed hitters, a sharp 12-to-6 curveball, and an improving changeup. And this year he has also added in a cutter. And he has bewildered opposing hitters. In his pro debut in 2011, Carpenter made 4 starts and 4 relief appearances for Short Season-A Hudson Valley, going 2-1 with a ridiculous 0.76 ERA, 26 strikeouts, just 4 walks, and not a single homer allowed in 23.2 IP. His FIP was an incredible 1.51, and his xFIP (thanks to Minor League Central) was still good at 2.83. But the question was whether he could sustain his performance as he moved up through the minors. So far, so good.
In 2012 in his age 21 season, Carpenter has gone 4-1 for the Bowling Green Hot Rods with 4-1 with a 2.57 ERA, 27 strikeouts, just 5 walks, and 3 homers allowed in 6 starts, a relief appearance, and 35 IP. His FIP has been a nice 3.20, although his xFIP has come in at 3.61. He has managed just a 33.7% groundball rate compared to the 45.1% league average, not exactly a good sign, but hopefully Carpenter’s newfound cutter will help him get that up quite a bit before the season is through.
Ryan Carpenter is not an elite pitching prospect. But as a 7th rounder in the draft, Carpenter has the ability to vastly outperform his draft slot. Carpenter’s upside right now is probably an innings-eating 4th starter with great control but who allows far too many home runs. If he improves his cutter and can use it effectively enough to keep the ball on the ground pronouncedly more, his upside could be as high as a 3rd starter. The Rays keep churning out pitcher after pitcher like Carpenter. They turn the unheralded draft picks into big league contributors and occasionally (James Shields, Matt Moore) they strike gold. Look for Carpenter to make his way through the minor leagues and eventually be part of another group of pitching prospects who give the Rays incredible starting pitching depth in their system. If you think the Rays have too many upper-levels pitching prospects, you haven’t seen anything yet.