Our First-Ever RCG Mailbag: Did the Rays Make a Mistake By Dealing Wade Davis?
By Robbie Knopf
Here at Rays Colored Glasses, we do everything we can to come up with interesting articles that provide Rays fans with incisive analysis about the issues they care about. But sometimes even our best efforts to generate content fall short of the ideas provided by our readers. Something that has become quite popular across the internet has been to do “Mailbags” answering questions from readers. For the first time ever, we’re going to try that here at RCG. If you have any Rays-related or simply baseball-related questions to ask the RCG staff, feel free to comment on our RCG Facebook Page or send us an email at email@example.com.
Marv K: I have a completely different perspective on the James Shields/Wil Myers trade- I think this trade could be a disaster for the Tampa Bay Rays franchise. The traded two starting pitchers- 40% of their starting staff- for a prospect who has never stepped on a major league playing field? Tampa Bay has spent the last decade developing the finest young pitchers in the game of baseball and in one foul swoop wiped it out. I have no problem with the James Shields end of the trade. I am fully aware of Tampa Bay’s budgetary concerns and realize they had no choice but to part with Shields. But why include Wade Davis as part of the package? Wade Davis was the heir apparent to James Shields and would have softened the blow of his departure. Davis is a young pitcher who has struggled at times but is coming off a sensational season in the bullpen which I believe has reenergized his career. Now, with Davis gone, the back end of the Tampa Bays Rays rotation is a mess; with several unproven commodities with very low ceilings vying for the jobs of fourth and fifth starters. And if the Tampa Bay Rays were that desperate for additional salary relief they could have traded Jeff Niemann!
Also, had the Tampa Bay Rays retained Wade Davis there would have been no need to splurge on Roberto Hernandez who is due 3.25 million dollars on an incentive-laden contract. That money could have been better spent on offense. Why not trade Shields straight-up for Myers (even if Andrew Friedman thought it was a bit of an overpay), or alternatively deal him to the Texas Rangers for a package of players headlined by Mike Olt or to the Washington Nationals (before they signed Dan Haren) for Mike Morse and more?
Robbie Knopf: Davis is coming off an unbelievable season in the bullpen for the Rays and no one can deny that. As the season went on, he only got better, blossoming into one of the best relief weapons in all of baseball as he was able to go multiple innings while maintaining his electric stuff, being one of just five pitchers in baseball to strike out 11 or more batters per 9 innings while tossing 70 innings or more. He was a completely different pitcher than he had been in the past, and a much better one. His fastball touched 96 MPH consistently, his newfound cutter was unhittable, his curveball was a great third pitch, and hitters couldn’t even track of his slider and changeup when he mixed them in. But now the critical question with Davis is whether his relief breakthrough can translate back to the starting rotation.
Davis is due 2.8 million dollars in 2012 and 4.8 million dollars in 2013. The team-friendly contract Davis signed before the 2011 season became much less team-friendly if Davis remaied a reliever. He absolutely was going to have to start, in Tampa Bay or elsewhere. Electric relievers, especially ones who can go multiple innings, are a great commodity but also an easily replaceable one- Chris Archer, Alex Colome, or Alex Torres could slide into such a role next season for the Rays, and all three have the ability to succeed. It’s clear that Davis had to start, but how is he going to do in his return to the rotation?
The major difference between Davis’ 2011 and 2012 repertoires were his fastball velocity and his cutter, a pitch he didn’t even throw in 2011. Per Brooks Baseball, his fastball velocity jumped from 92.19 MPH on average to 94.45 MPH (by September it was up to 95.78 MPH), and that came with a tremendous increase in whiff rate on the pitch- from 6.31% all the way to 13.92%. A scary stat is that even though Davis threw 113.2 more innings in 2011 compared to 2012, he managed just 9 more swings and misses on his fastball. Unfortunately for Davis, that incredible uptick in fastball velocity and whiff rate on his fastball will not nearly persist when he moves back to the rotation. Davis’ fastball velocity as a starting pitcher is going to be, best-case scenario, most like his 2010 velocity, which was 93.25 MPH on average, and that year he managed just a 6.35% whiff rate on his fastball. One year pitching out of the bullpen doesn’t change the fact that Davis has never been able to miss enough bats with his fastball as a starting pitcher and if he’s ever going to prove himself as an effective big league starter, he’s going to have to show significant improvement from where his secondary pitches were when he pitched out of the Rays’ rotation in 2011.
Hasn’t Davis done exactly that? Davis’ cutter gives him a potential plus pitch to add to his repertoire after a major problem for him in the early stretches of his big league career was having a good fastball but never having a secondary pitch he could consistently rely on. His cutter changes that. Hitters couldn’t do anything with Davis’ low-90’s cutter in 2012 as he generated a 21% whiff rate on it along with an outstanding 4.67 to 1 groundball to flyball ratio. But even if we say that Davis’ fastball and cutter can be true plus pitches, what does he have after that? Davis’ whiff rate on his curveball in his 2012 was 11.55%, which would be below average even for a starter. His slider is basically his cutter at a little less velocity, so that’s going out of his arsenal. And Davis’ changeup has never really developed. Davis would be a pitcher with two good pitches and a halfway-decent third offering. That pitcher is a number three starter type in the best-case scenario and more realistically a fourth starter. Is that a bad thing? Of course not, but once again, that pitcher is replaceable. The Rays are set to do exactly that.
You call Alex Cobb an unproven commodity when he has been great the last two years, managing a 3.86 ERA, a 6.8 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and 0.7 HR/9 (3.73 FIP) in 189 innings the last two years. He may have a low ceiling, but he could be an excellent 4th starter type for years to come and could very well have a better season next year than Davis will in Kansas City. For the 5th starter slot, you have Jeff Niemann, who’s more than capable if he’s healthy, Chris Archer, who may be better suited in the bullpen but you certainly can do worse than a 5th starter with two potential plus-plus pitches even if he basically has nothing else, and also the recently-acquired Roberto Hernandez and Jake Odorizzi. The Hernandez contract may seem a little strange at first glance as he’ll make 3.25 million dollars guaranteed plus incentives, but his stuff is absolutely electric, he has two great seasons as a starting pitcher under his belt, and with the right mechanical adjustments, the Rays will be looking like geniuses in a few months.
Of those players, Jeff Niemann would be an obvious trade candidate, and he may still be traded, but his trade value is nil after an extremely injury-riddled season punctuated by a shoulder injury at the end of the year, and the Rays couldn’t get any sort of prospect for him right now. Maybe he pitches well in spring training and gets dealt, but right now his maximum value lies in the Rays’ rotation.
Fine, Davis is replaceable, but why trade him? You can do worse than to have a fireballing relief arm or a 4th starter type with some upside! Andrew Friedman admitted that he never thought he would be trading two starting pitchers to the Royals, but that’s the way talks played out. Why did he do it? The main reason is the headliner of KC’s package, Wil Myers. Myers may be unproven, but he has clear superstar potential thanks to great bat speed and big-time power that helped him hit .314 with 37 homers primarily at Triple-A in 2012, and although there’s certainly risk with him (he struck out 140 times in 2012, but his pitch recognition has always been fine and he did still walk 61 times), he could blossom into a franchise player for the Rays for years to come with a little more refinement. Mike Olt or even Mike Morse could never be anywhere near that good of a player. (Morse had one good season, is coming off an injury-riddled year, has just one year left on his contract, and by the way has terrible patience and pitch recognition skills that make his numbers primed to only go down in coming years. The Rays could use him at DH, but how would a player like that have any business headlining a James Shields deal?)
And that wasn’t all the Rays received. The Rays also got a potential 3rd/4th starter type to replace Davis in Odorizzi and two higher risk players but still ones with incredible potential in Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard. The Rays are certainly taking a risk by trading Shields and Davis for those four, but Myers’ sky-high upside that he isn’t far away from reaching, Odorizzi’s ability to be as good as Davis and maybe even better, and even Montgomery and Leonard’s upside made the trade a no-brainer for the Rays. Why would the Rays not do a straight Shields for Myers swap? Because Myers does come with risk, and when you’re trading one of the most dependable pitchers in baseball, you have to get more than a prospect with no big league experience even if that prospect has superstar potential. The other players in the deal provide the Rays with insurance that their team will improve in the long-term even if Myers does not live up to expectations. The Rays are willing to trade a replaceable 4th starter type like Davis to receive not just insurance but three other players that they’re excited about.
Why did the Rays trade Wade Davis? The simple truth is that while he was outstanding in 2012, he’s easily replaceable either out of the bullpen and rotation, and while the Rays would have preferred to hold onto him, acquiring the type of prospects the Royals were offering them were too good to pass up. He may have discovered his cutter in 2012, but his repertoire still isn’t enough for him to be realistically more than a back-of-the-rotation type in a major league rotation. Best of luck to Davis in Kansas City, but the bottom line is that Davis will not be a pitcher the Rays will regret trading.
Marv, you make good points, but you’re vastly overrating Davis while undermining the incredible upside the Rays are getting from the Shields and Davis trade as well as the Hernandez signing. Maybe despite the Rays’ calculated gamble looking great now, it will fail when push comes to shove. What if Shields becomes an ace for Kansas City and Davis slots in as a strong number three to help the Royals to the postseason next year while Myers, Montgomery, and Leonard all flame out and Odorizzi becomes nothing more than a 5th starter? That is always the risk in a trade like this. But the reward could be a potential superstar outfielder, a strong 3rd starter, and maybe even another above-average big league player if the Rays are lucky in exchange for a pitcher that was about to depart anyway and just a pitcher who’s nothing more than a 4th starter or middle reliever. I love how the Rays have gone about their offseason this year (although they’re still missing a designated hitter), and while they’re going to need Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore to step up behind David Price to keep the Rays’ rotation among the best in baseball, they have made major strides as a franchise and are primed for a great 2013 and a future as promising as ever.
Once again, if you have any question about the Rays or baseball in general, you can feel free to comment on our RCG Facebook Page or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t worry, your question doesn’t have to be as long or thought-out as Marv’s, and we’ll do our best to answer your questions in our quest to give you everything you need to know about the Tampa Bay Rays.