There was a time when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were infamous throughout baseball for rushing their pitching prospects to the major leagues with disastrous results. Pitchers like Jason Standridge and Dewon Brazelton were top picks with legitimate ability but both made it to the major leagues by age 22 despite major warning signs in their minor league performances, and retired with major league ERA’s of 5.80 and 6.34 respectively. And then there were pitchers like Seth McClung and Doug Waechter known to fans (especially of the Yankees and Red Sox) as complete laughingstocks but really being pitchers who could have been effective in the major leagues if only they had been given the time. It was only the best-of-the-best that was able to survive for any extended period of time: Scott Kazmir, and beyond him, the Devil Rays’ starting rotations in their early history had basically nothing. But in 2006, the new ownership group led by Stuart Sternberg took over and everything changed. In fact, with Andrew Friedman at the helm, the Rays’ philosophy has gone to the opposite extreme: instead of rushing pitchers to the majors, the Rays are content to leave major league ready pitchers at Triple-A.
"For sure, we believe Archer could be here right now."
So Chris Archer is ready for the major leagues, and nevertheless the Rays sent him down to minor league camp with three weeks left in camp. He never had a realistic chance to win a rotation spot. And even though the Rays saw firsthand just how talented he is in his six major league appearances in 2012, the Rays are sending him down with no return to the big leagues in sight and there’s a reasonable chance that he’ll spend most of 2013 back in the minor leagues. How does that make any sense? What are the Rays thinking?
The Rays have been lucky enough the past several years to have a rotation surplus, having six or seven quality major league pitchers without enough places to put them all. But the side-effect of that has been situations like Archer where pitchers who would be a key part of the rotation for 24 or 25 of the other teams in baseball are stuck at Triple-A simply waiting for a chance. It seems crazy- the Rays have always had offensive struggles, and why don’t they trade more of their pitchers for bats? But let’s see if the Rays are truly justified or not. This has been going on for years now and we have an actual sample size to look at, and let’s see how the Rays have done.
Jeff Niemann was the 4th overall pick by the Devil Rays in 2004 and in 2007 he finally broke through, going 12-6 with a 3.98 ERA, an 8.5 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 25 starts and 131 IP. Then he began 2008 in the Rays’ rotation and tossed 6 one-run innings with 5 strikeouts to earn a win in his major league debut. But after just one more start, Niemann was sent down to the minor leagues, making 24 starts at Triple-A before finally returning to the major leagues in September. How did he turn out? Niemann’s upside was reduced substantially by that point thanks to shoulder problems, but he’s been able to become basically that same pitcher he was at Triple-A when healthy, managing a 4.08 ERA and a 4.31 FIP in 544.1 innings pitched.
Wade Davis was selected by the Rays two rounds after Niemann in 2004 and quickly emerged as a top prospect. The Rays were very careful with him, though, and it wasn’t until 2008 at age 22 that he reached Triple-A. That year, he went 13-8 with a 3.47 ERA, a 7.6 K/9, a 3.7 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 28 starts and 160.2 innings pitched. He was especially impressive in 9 starts at Triple-A to end the year, going 4-2 with a 2.72 ERA, a 9.3 K/9, a 4.1 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 53 IP. But the Rays kept him in Triple-A until September of 2008, even as he pitched to a 3.40 ERA and a 140-60 strikeout to walk ratio in 28 starts and 158.2 IP and their team collapsed in the second half. Davis looked electric in his 6 September starts, striking out 36 batters in 36.1 IP, and went 12-10 with a 4.07 ERA on his way to a 4th place finish in the 2010 Rookie of the Year voting and subsequently a contract extension, but he fell apart in 2011 before thriving in the bullpen in 2012. Then, of course, he was traded to the Kansas City Royals as part of the Wil Myers trade in December of 2012. So was keeping Davis in the minors the right move? It’s close but we have to stay no. Davis was blowing by Triple-A hitters but he was never able to adjust to big league pitching out of the rotation, managing just a 1.74-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio in his two full seasons as a starter in 2010 and 2011 (with inconsistent secondary pitches being the primary culprit), and getting a few more starts in 2009 could have made all the difference.
Davis was debatable, but Talbot was an unqualified disaster. Acquired by the Rays with Ben Zobrist in the Aubrey Huff trade, Talbot was lights-out in his second go-around at Triple-A in 2008 going 13-9 with a 3.86 ERA, a 7.9 K/9, a 2.0 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 28 starts and 161 innings pitched. Nevertheless, he made just 3 appearances in the major leagues at the end of the year and began the next year back at Triple-A. He was pitching incredibly, managing a 3.69 ERA and a 67-18 strikeout to walk ratio in 68.1 innings pitched, when he went down with an elbow sprain, and he hasn’t been the same since. Maybe he would have gotten that same injury had he been in the major leagues, or maybe he could have been overexerting himself trying to prove the Rays that he belonged in the majors.
Hellickson was the Rays’ 4th round pick in 2005 and dominated almost from the moment he joined the professional ranks. He was at his absolute finest as he cracked Triple-A for the first time in 200, going 9-2 with a 2.45 ERA, a 10.4 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 in 20 starts (9 of which came at Triple-A) and 114 IP. It wasn’t until the end of 2010 that he finally reached the majors, though, and it took Matt Garza being traded for him to finally get a Rays rotation spot. He has put up a sparkly 3.02 ERA in the two years since, although his 241-131 strikeout to walk ratio and 1.1 HR/9 are all at least somewhat concerning for his ability to keep pitching that way moving forward. Hellickson has pitched very well, so you have to grade him as a success, but at the same time, it’s taken a while for Hellickson to adjust to the major leagues- only this past season did he finally get his curveball to become a more consistent weapon (which is the biggest reason why he has the ability to keep his ERA right where it is)- and considering he had nothing to prove at Triple-A, figuring out more things at the big league level could have only expedited his development.
Torres, acquired in the Scott Kazmir trade, followed in Kazmir’s footsteps as an enigmatic lefty but one with electric stuff, and he impressed in his first crack at Triple-A in 2011, going 9-7 with a 3.08 ERA, a 9.6 K/9, a 5.1 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 27 starts and 146.1 innings pitched. He had his problems with walks, but he also led the International League in strikeouts and pitched very well for the Rays in September, including 5 shutout innings with 5 strikeouts on September 24th versus the Blue Jays after Niemann was knocked out early to help the Rays to a huge win. But Torres didn’t even have a chance to make the Rays’ rotation in 2012 and that frustration had to play a part in his horrific 2012 as he went just 3-8 with a 6.72 ERA, a 12.1 K/9, a 7.5 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 18 starts, 12 relief appearances, and 80.1 innings pitched. The good news is that Torres rebounded in a huge way at Winter Ball and still has a chance to be a 4th or 5th starter or at least a middle reliever in the major leagues, but not having any chance to make the major leagues had to have an impact on Torres and the Rays keeping him down was disastrous.
Looking at these five pitchers, the Rays’ strategy of keeping the Rays in the minor leagues has not worked very well. None of them gained anything by staying in the minor leagues, and at best they stayed strong and at worst the psychological anguish of being stuck in Triple-A got to them and they imploded spectacularly. All of these pitchers’ issues were cleary not only the fault of the Rays for keeping them in the minors. However, there’s a certain amount of development that has to happen at the major leagues, and the Rays haven’t let these pitchers get any of that.
One critical thing to note is that for the Rays’ most talented pitchers, they don’t follow this gameplan- David Price and Matt Moore were rushed at least a little bit to get to the majors, and that was clearly because the Rays recognize just how talented they are. But overall, this strategy isn’t one that appears to help in any way and only makes things worse, and the Rays need to find a happy medium between rushing their pitchers and leaving them in the minors too long. That’s a narrow-minded standpoint, though- that’s only taking into account the pictures involved and not all the other benefits that having surplus pitchers in the minors has for the Rays and also the fact that development of their pitching prospects isn’t the Rays’ primary focus- it’s winning games.
Just because a pitcher is big league ready doesn’t mean he’s even close to reaching his potential and you can look no further than David Price’s struggles in 2009 just before his second place finish in the Cy Young in 2010 to see that. The Rays would love to have all their pitching prospects continue their development at the major league level, but that’s impossible and they just have to do the best they can. And even if the prospects who are stranded in Triple-A are losing development time, they may very well be worth the trade-off for the injury insurance they provide to the Rays’ big league starting rotation. And then there’s also the matter of the money the Rays save by keeping their pitchers in the minors. Even if the net result for the pitching prospects may be negative, the overall result for the Rays has been at least a marginal gain. Going from one extreme in rushing pitchers to the other in keeping them at Triple-A may not be the best move for the Rays and they will look to fine-tune that moving forward. But despite all the evidence otherwise, the Rays keeping their pitchers in the minors longer has worked out for their team and although it’s frustrating, the Rays know what they’re doing.
Every pitcher is different, and in Chris Archer’s case he is known for great intangibles so he may fare better than most. Archer also needs work on his control and changeup, and getting more of that before he heads to the major leagues certainly wouldn’t hurt. It has to be frustrating for Archer heading back to the minor leagues, and the Rays’ best hope for him may have to be for him to just tread water and bide time until a rotation spot opens up for him. But between the insurance he will provide for their starting five, the struggles he’ll inevitably have once he arrives in the majors, and the money the Rays will save, it’s a move that makes sense and looks to be the best for the team moving forward. It seems ridiculous and maybe it is, but the Rays have found a formula that has helped their team, and sending Chris Archer to Triple-A is another attempt to do just that.