The Rays are known for getting middle round steals in the MLB Draft. Take as much as four-fifths of the Rays current rotation: James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and, if the Rays so choose, Alex Cobb. The Rays just missed having a Matt Moore-type player in their first ever MLB Draft.
The first three players the Rays ever drafted did not make the major leagues. The fourth was a hard-throwing 6’2″ left-hander named Cedrick Bowers, who they selected out of Chiefland High School in Florida in the 1996 MLB Draft’s 4th round. He would eventually make the big leagues- but not the way anybody expected.
Bowers made his professional debut in 1996 with the Rookie-level GCL Devil Rays, and in 13 starts and 60.1 IP he struggled to a 5.37 ERA. He was walking everyone, posting a 5.8 BB/9. But his promise was there. Bowers struck out 85 batters in those 60.1 innings, an outstanding 12.7 K/9. The D-Rays saw enough from Bowers to send him to the Low-A Charleston Riverdogs for his second pro season. And the results were good as he went 8-10 with a 3.21 ERA, a 9.4 K/9, a 4.5 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 in 28 starts and 157 IP. He struck out 164 batters, third in the South Atlantic League. But it was alarming that the D-Rays allowed Bowers to throw so many innings as a 19 year old in just his second pro season. He was the youngest player in the Sally League to throw 150 innings, and second-youngest behind Jason Marquis to throw 125. Nevertheless, it worked out for Bowers and the D-Rays saw no reason not to continue using their young pitchers in such a manner. That may have set the franchise back for years. Not to mention that it may have ruined Bowers long-term.
In 1998, the D-Rays brought Bowers up to their High-A franchise in St. Petersburg and the results were not as good as Bowers went 5-9 with a 4.38 ERA, the same 9.4 K/9, but a 4.8 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 26 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 15o IP. He was third in the Florida State League with 156 strikeouts, but his walk and homer rates inched up insidiously. They came to a coda in 1999 when the D-Rays sent Bowers to Double-A Orlando. Bowers went 6-9 with a 5.98 ERA, posting a 9.9 K/9, but walking 5.5 per 9 and allowing a terrible 1.3 HR/9 in 27 starts and 125 IP. He allowed 4 more homes than he did in 1999 in 25 less innings pitched. He was still just a 21 year old in a league where the average age was 24.5, so the D-Rays retained reason to be optimistic.
In his repeat of Double-A, Bowers showed considerable improvement, going 5-8 with a 2.78 ERA, a 7.8 K/9, a 3.8 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 19 starts, 1 relief appearance, and 106.2 IP. If that had been the end of Bowers’ season, it would have meant nice progress for him. His strikeout rate dropped, but he improved his walk and homer rate by a wide margin. But the D-Rays decided to call Bowers up to Triple-A Durham, and the results were disastrous. Bowers somehow went 3-1, but his ERA was jus 5.49 as he posted a 9.2 K/9, a 5.9 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 19.2 IP.
In 2001, Bowers went back to Durham and after struggling out of the gate as a starter, they moved him to the bullpen. On the surface, Bowers had a nice season, going 6-5 with a 3.06 ERA in 31 relief appearances, 11 starts, and 94 IP, but he struck out just 6.4 batters per 9 innings while walking 5.4 and allowed a 1.0 HR/9. Bowers never got completely comfortable out of the bullpen, and his mechanics were not bad enough in and of themselves to necessitate a move to the ‘pen. In 2002 in his age 24 season, Bowers worked exclusively as a reliever at Durham and he improved, going 4-3 with a 3.12 ERA, a 10.3 K/9, a 5.6 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9 in 47 relief appearances spanning 69.1 IP. Bowers had to be rattled that he was never called up to the big leagues or even placed on the Rays’ 40-man roster, which featured immortal relievers such as Travis Phelps, Doug Creek, and Tom Martin.
In 2003, Bowers showed improvement working both as a starter and a reliever, going 4-3 with a 4.41 ERA, an 8.6 K/9, a 4.2 BB/9, a 0.6 HR/9, and 2 saves in 8 starts, 24 relief appearances, and 83.2 IP. The D-Rays still didn’t call him up and even allowed the hard-throwing lefty to leave as a free agent. Bowers was signed by the Marlins but granted his conditional release in spring training as he signed with the Yokohama Bay Stars in Japan.
Bowers would spend 3 seasons in Japan and 1 in Korea before finally returning to the US as a 30 year old in 2008 on a minor league contract with the Colorado Rockies. Bowers pitched relatively well for the Rockies’ Triple-A Colorado Springs franchise, going 6-1 with a 3.74 ERA, a 10.2 K/9, a 6.0 BB/9, a 0.7 HR/9, and 1 save in 33 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 65 IP. Included in the middle of there was Bowers’ first stint in the big leagues. Big league hitters had their way with Bowers as he posted just a 13.50 ERA with 5 strikeout, 5 walks, and 2 home runs allowed in 5 relief appearances and 6.2 IP. But he had finally made the big leagues after 13 professional seasons.
Bowers spent all of 2009 at the Phillies’ Triple-A Lehigh Valley and the results were good but his control was not as he went 6-1 with a 3.74 ERA and 5 saves in 48 relief appearances and 60.2 IP. He struck out 9.9 batters per 9 innings and posted a rock-solid 0.7 HR/9, but his BB/9 was the highest of his career to that point, 6.7. Bowers then signed with the Oakland A’s for 2010, and he did OK for the Athletics’ Triple-A Sacramento, going 2-1 with a 3.66 ERA, a 14.1 K/9, a 7.3 BB/9, and 0.3 HR/9 in 29 relief appearances and 32 IP. He was good enough to return to the big leagues, where he finally experienced some success. Bowers made 14 relief appearances for the A’s, going 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA, 18 strikeouts, just 6 walks, but 4 home runs allowed (2.6 HR/9) in 14 relief appearances and 14 IP. But in late August he injured his elbow, and in September he underwent Tommy John Surgery. He has never pitched professionally since, and considering Bowers in 34 now, the surgery may very well mark the end of his career.
The scary thing about Bowers is how similar he is to Matt Moore. Bowers is 6’2″, 220 while Moore is 6’2″, 205. But the big similarity is their repertoires. Both throw an overpowering mid-90’s fastball, a big curveball, and a very good changeup. Matt Moore’s big league career thus far has been a struggle, but he remains one of the most promising pitchers in baseball and on Thursday we finally saw him put it all together in the last 3 innings of his outing. Why couldn’t Bowers ever reach the same level?
We’ve seen Moore struggle to begin 2012 after not struggling very much everywhere else he went in his pro career. Bowers was a little different. He was very young and still had the potential to be a good major league pitcher, but the D-Rays did not give him time to develop. His control never got better because they rushed him through the minor leagues. And even after pushing Bowers to Triple-A, the D-Rays moved Bowers to the bullpen and subsequently gave up on him. If the Rays had eased Bowers along, maybe he would have come out differently. Could he have been another pitcher with anywhere near the upside of Matt Moore? Probably not, but with his electric stuff he had some chance. Thanks to the D-Rays mishandling of him, we’ll never know.
The careers of players like Bowers continue to reverberate in the Rays organization. They’re reminders of how the most promising players can fall apart if not handled properly in the minor leagues. Since then, the Rays have completely flipped their strategy and have eased their pitchers as slowly as any team in baseball. And the results have been a whole lot better. It’s unfortunate what happened to Bowers and the Rays’ other great pitching prospects of their early years. But we have to thank them for changing the way that the Rays operate today and ultimately helping the Rays succeed.