The 2014 season is still very young, but it is clear that the Tampa Bay Rays’ starting rotation is not doing its job. When Jeremy Hellickson got injured, everyone thought the Rays would be fine. However, when Matt Moore and Alex Cobb joined him, with Moore set to miss the rest of the season, the starting staff quickly began to collapse. Can the Rays weather this storm with the pitchers that they have in their organization?
Out of the Rays’ top six starters, three remain: David Price, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi. All three, especially Odorizzi, have been inconsistent right when the Rays need them the most. Price is an excellent pitcher, Archer has tremendous talent, and there are reasons for optimism regarding Odorizzi. If those three were performing as well as they are capable, it would have been easy for the last two rotation spots to fall into place. Instead, Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos were asked to keep a sinking ship afloat, and it is not going well. Bedard has not done anything positive, managing a 7.45 ERA with more walks than strikeouts in his three appearances. Ramos looked very good in his last start, but the Rays certainly can’t count on him to be that good of a pitcher every time out. With that in mind, who are the pitchers from Triple-A? Is there someone that can enter the Rays’ rotation and make a difference?
A big reason why both Bedard and Ramos are still starting are the struggles of Nate Karns. The 26 year old right-hander hasn’t lost anything from the electric stuff that prompted the Rays to give up Jose Lobaton and two prospects for him, but he has an 8.02 ERA in his 5 starts and this is not the time to bring him up. Karns has a 12.2 K/9 in 21.1 innings pitched, but he also has a 6.2 BB/9, and a 2.1 HR/9. His third and fourth starts were very good, but he needs to have a better handle on where his pitches are going before he can realistically be a major league option. Maybe in a month, Karns will have turned his season around and proven himself ready for the big leagues. But the Rays need him now and he is not ready.
Possessing even better stuff than Karns is Enny Romero, but the left-hander still needs plenty of work. He does have a 27-12 strikeout to walk ratio in his first 5 starts, which would mark his best mark since 2010, but he has a 4.44 ERA in 26.1 innings pitched and that mark is not a fluke. Romero has just a 0.89 groundout-to-airout ratio on the season and the worst groundball rate among Bulls starters. It is great to see him around the zone more and it has helped him miss more bats, but even Triple-A hitters can handle pitches left up. Romero could very well be fine in the long-term, but he badly needs a full season at Triple-A and we have to expect that the Rays will give it to him.
The stats are quickly misleading for Mike Montgomery–he has a 4.15 ERA even though he has looked very good in 3 of his 4 starts. Even so, his 5.7 BB/9, and 1.0 HR/9 certainly are not pretty, and don’t inspire confidence that he is any different from the pitcher he has been the last three years. Montgomery has a big league future with a low-90’s fastball that he is starting to locate better, an excellent changeup, and a decent breaking ball. However, he entered the season as a relief prospect more than a starter in the long term, and he has not done enough to change that.
Is there any chance that Matt Andriese could be an option? The 24 year old right-hander actually has quite solid numbers, managing a 3.81 ERA, an 8.3 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 1.0 HR/9 in 4 starts, a relief appearance, and 26 innings pitched. Even more impressive, Andriese has a 49.3% groundball rate and has gone 7 innings in his last two starts. With a good sinker and two solid secondary pitches in his slider and splitter, Andriese has good stuff and now has 84.2 Triple-A innings his belt. It would be nice if Andriese was dominating as opposed to simply doing OK, but the Rays’ pickings are slim here. Why wouldn’t they call up Andriese? The answer is that he is not on the 40-man roster, and if they were to add Andriese, he would become significantly less valuable. Andriese stands out as a talented prospect who has reached Triple-A but will not have to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft until after this season. Now, they would have to not only add him but also burn an option when they send him down to the minor leagues. However, the Rays don’t have the depth to worry about that right now, and it should not factor heavily into their decision of whether to call up Andriese.
Finally, we have Merrill Kelly, who the stats tell us has been the best Durham Bulls pitcher so far this season. In 3 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 24 innings pitched, Kelly is 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA, a 9.0 K/9, a 2.2 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9. His groundball rate is 51.5%, the best rate of his career, and he has gone 6 innings in all three of his starts. Why aren’t we talking about Kelly more? The answer is that Kelly lacks the luster of the pitchers ahead of him and is considered more of a reliever for the future. Kelly’s fastball is primarily in the 88-90 MPH range, his changeup is good but not great, and his breaking ball is slurvy. Kelly is not about to go from solid relief prospect to starting pitcher savior. The odds are increasing that we will see Kelly in the major leagues this season, but that is unlikely to come as a starter.
Last season, the Tampa Bay Rays suffered starting pitcher injuries but had prospects like Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Colome waiting at Triple-A. They have no one like that available now. If the Rays are going to call someone up, it appears that the choice would be Matt Andriese almost by default. Is Andriese ready? We cannot be certain, but he can’t be a worse option than Bedard and Ramos have been. Andrise is currently lined up to start next on April 29th, which is Bedard’s next scheduled start, and they have no starter on their roster available to start on the 30th. A starter will be coming up, and the odds-on favorite has to be Andriese.