There is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Tampa Bay Rays right now, but there is one thing we can be sure about: the Rays will have a great rotation next season. With the offense and bullpen featuring more question marks, though, just how great the rotation is could be the difference between the Rays contending in 2015 or struggling again.
Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi were all very good for the Rays in 2014, but they showed the potential to be much better. We also need to discuss Drew Smyly, who was dominant after coming over in the David Price trade, but in only seven starts. Can the Rays’ rotation quartet take the next step in their development to lead the team to greater heights next season?
Everything starts with Alex Cobb. Now the Rays’ undisputed ace, Cobb will need to stay on the field, plain and simple. For the second straight year, he notched a sub-3.00 ERA and, to go along with that, he posted career-bests in FIP (3.23) and WHIP (1.136). However, Cobb missed time early in the season with a strained oblique muscle, his fourth year being sidelined by injury in the last five. Some of those injuries were the result of terrible luck–what happened to him 2013 certainly applies for that–but his delivery does put far too much pressure on his side.
It is hard for Rays fans and not think “bulldog,” but he has to prove that he can sustain his current level of performance while approaching 200 innings. With that in mind, the spotlight will be full-blast on Cobb this year.
The good news is that Chris Archer could take some of the pressure off of him. In his second full season in the big leagues, Archer jumped to 194 innings pitched and while his ERA went up from 3.22 to 3.33, his FIP went down markedly from 4.09 to 3.39. If this is what Archer can be as a pitcher for the long-term, that will be fine. But the Rays are hoping for even more.
Right now, Archer is basically a two-pitch pitcher. Luckily for him, his mid-90’s fastball and sharp slider are devastating, but his changeup will be the pitch that will determine whether he will become an ace or not. Archer threw the pitch just 5.92% of the time in 2014, which is extremely low given how much promise it has shown in the past. The good news is that Archer doesn’t need to develop his changeup all that much, he just needs to learn to trust it more. If he does, the rest of baseball better watch out.
Who would have thought that 2014 would finish with Jake Odorizzi looking like the prize of the James Shields deal for the Rays? On the season, he managed a 4.13 ERA with 174 strikeouts against 59 walks in 168 innings. From May 9th on, that ERA even went down to 3.59 as Odorizzi showed the ability to overcome his early-season struggles. Can Odorizzi pitch like that for a full season?
One thing Odorizzi will have to work on is reducing his dependence on fastballs up in the zone. He lived and died with the high fastball to get batters out and hitters showed signs of adjusting to that as the season went on. In 2015, Odorizzi will hope to use his split-change, slider, and curveball more effectively to find additional approaches to retire hitters and get deeper into games. He has the ability to be better than we thought but now his task is to keep his development going in the right direction.
Finally, we have Smyly. The 25 year old lefty looked like a number three or four starter when he was starting for the Detroit Tigers in 2012 and 2014, but he was absolutely unhittable upon joining the Rays. The team made some changes to his approach to help him find more success with his fastball and cutter after joining the team, and that clearly made an impact. The fact that he has three potential plus pitches (adding in his curveball) is impressive and makes you wonder whether Andrew Friedman knew something we all did not when he executed the Price trade.
On the other hand, Smyly needs more than 47.2 strong innings to prove that he is a changed man and also has work to do building innings. Smyly was shut down after just 153 innings this year and will be heading into uncharted territory next season. The good news for Smyly is that he has been entirely healthy the last two years, but he gives the Rays another pitcher who needs to show the durability required of a dependable big league starter.
If these four starters can continue their progress, the Rays will win even with Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman gone. Everyone has areas they need to work on, but each of these top four Rays starters features tremendous potential and is under contract for at least the next three years. We also cannot forget that Matt Moore will be back in May or June. If you need a reason to get excited about the Rays again, this is it.