Is the 2015 Tampa Bay Rays Rotation the Team’s Best Ever?
By Andrew Garrison
The Tampa Bay Rays have been known for great pitching since their rise from obscurity in 2008, when they reached the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. Since then, the Rays have prided themselves on producing a solid rotation and sound bullpen every year to the point that they have become trademarks of the team’s recent success.
There have been a lot of changes to the Rays’ roster since the trade deadline, raising plenty of questions about the team in general. Among them is the following: how good is their rotation compared to previous successful starting staffs?
While it’s a bit early to lock down the Tampa Bay Rays rotation for 2015, it will likely look something like this.
#1 Alex Cobb
#2 Chris Archer
#3 Matt Moore (expected to return in June from Tommy-John surgery)
#4 Drew Smyly
#5 Jake Odorizzi
Since Moore is not ready to return, out-of-options pitching prospect Alex Colome is currently the favorite to take his place in the rotation, with Smyly moving up to #3 and Odorizzi to #4. There are also talks that the Rays could bring in a veteran like Alexi Ogando or Scott Baker to hold down their number five spot.
It may seem unfair to compare this young rotation with the best the Rays have ever had, but after prolonged success 2008-2013, expectations have been raised. Especially with questions on the offensive side, the Rays need their starters to be as impressive as ever for this team to contend.
Looking back at the better rotations in Rays history takes us first to 2008, when the Rays found a way to reach the World Series behind a strong rotation, a solid bullpen, and a scrappy offense.
1. James Shields: 14-8, 3.56 ERA, 160/40 K/BB in 215 innings pitched – Shields’ fastball wasn’t the most impressive, but his changeup was excellent while his cutter and curve showed good movement. He made quick work of many batters in 2008, which made him a star pitcher as the club reached the playoffs.
2. Andy Sonnanstine: 13-9, 4.38 ERA, 124/37 K/BB in 193.1 IP – This was by far Sonnanstine’s best year. He pitched effectively enough to keep the Rays in games and let their offense and bullpen do the rest. While Sonnanstine was far from dominant, he pitched nearly 200 frames in 2008, eating up innings and keeping the bullpen rested.
3. Matt Garza: 11-9, 3.70 ERA, 128/59 K/BB in 184.2 IP – He may not have had the most talent or overall stuff, but with a nice slider and great curve, Garza proved an effective pitcher for the Rays throughout 2008. He ranked third on the staff in both ERA and innings pitched.
4. Edwin Jackson: 14-11, 4.42 ERA, 108/77 K/BB in 183.1 IP – Jackson is your average pitcher who fell into a good situation in 2008. He wasn’t electric as his good stuff was mostly negated by poor command, but Jackson pitched decently enough to eat innings and net 14 wins for himself.
5. Scott Kazmir: 12-8, 3.49 ERA 166/70 K/BB in 152.1 IP – After years as a feared lefty for one of the worst teams in baseball, Kazmir was still effective in 2008 but saw issues with injuries and getting deep in games limit how much value he could give the Rays. He still had the staff’s best ERA and the most strikeouts (despite 62.2 less IP than Shields), but there were signs that the end was near.
As you can see, this rotation did have established pitchers like Shields and Kazmir on the roster, but it also relied on younger, untested, and largely unknown pitchers to rise up to the occasion. When they succeeded, something special was in store.
The 2012 Rays rotation was arguably the Rays’ best rotation to date.
1. James Shields: 15-10, 3.52 ERA, 223/58 K/BB in 227.2 IP – Shields was outstanding in 2011 and rebounded from a rough start to deliver another strong year in 2012. He may have not been as sensational as David Price, but he certainly finished with good numbers.
2. David Price: 20-5, 2.56 ERA, 205/59 K/BB in 211 IP – Price pitched so well in 2012 that he won the 2012 Cy Young Award. Price used a variety of devastating pitches including a nasty sinker, a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup. On the whole, he was quite close to untouchable.
3. Matt Moore: 11-11, 3.81 ERA, 175/81 K/BB in 177.1 IP – In Moore’s first full season in the majors, he proved to be a solid pitcher with plenty of potential to grow. Moore’s control was an issue, but the fact that he led the staff in strikeouts per 9 innings (8.9) hinted at how good he could be.
4. Jeremy Hellickson: 10-11, 3.10 ERA, 124/59 K/BB in 177 IP – Hellickson won the Rookie of the Year award in 2011, and followed it up with a strong 2012. His fastball-changeup combination mesmerized hitters for one more year and he also made progress with his curveball.
5. Alex Cobb: 11-9, 4.03 ERA, 106/40 K/BB in 136.1 IP – Cobb wasn’t the force the he proved to be in 2012 and 2013, but he made progress in his second big league season as he learned from great teachers like Shields and Price. Cobb’s split-change remained dynamic to pair with his good sinker, and he also began getting his curveball up to par.
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The 2012 season proved that not only was that the Rays farm system deep with talented pitching, but also that prospects could come up to the majors and help the team immediately. Combining the efforts of the young Moore and Cobb with the established greatness of Price and Shields plus a second strong season from Hellickson made this rotation incredible. If we add in Fernando Rodney and the bullpen, this was one of the best pitching staffs in baseball history.
With all of that in mind, how does the 2015 Rays rotation stack up with the starting fives from 2008 and 2012?
1. Alex Cobb – His excellent performance off the mound and ability to teach younger pitchers makes him a perfect leader on this young team. Should Cobb stay healthy, he could become an ace the caliber of a Price or a Shields.
2. Chris Archer – Archer’s sinker-slider combination is absolutely electric, and it is amazing how good he has been with his changeup still not a big piece of his repertoire. At the very least, he is a very good number two or three starter, but the Rays are hoping that he can take the next step and become another frontline pitcher.
3. Matt Moore – Moore had proven himself to be an exceptional talent before going down early last season for Tommy John surgery. It’s hard to say how quickly he will recover, but many pitchers do come back and are successful after the surgery. We can expect Moore to come back with a still-overpowering arsenal, and if his command continues to improve, he could still become the pitcher the Rays always imagined he could be.
4. Drew Smyly – Smyly came over in the David Price trade and pitched exceptionally well in his first seven starts with the Rays. The Rays made some subtle changes to Smyly’s arsenal, including having him use his cutter more like Price’s and throw more fastballs up in the zone like Odorizzi. Smyly was a solid starter in Detroit, but the Rays think he can be ever better in Tampa Bay.
5. Jake Odorizzi – Odorizzi rebounded from a rough start to 2014 to deliver a rock-solid rookie year. His fastball was always impressive, and thanks to the split-change he learned from Cobb, Odorizzi has the ability to exceed expectations moving forward. When a pitcher like Odorizzi is your number five starter, you have to feel quite good about your rotation.
6. Alex Colome – While Moore is out, the Rays are currently set to have another pitcher with overpowering stuff to replace him. Colome was never quite able to put it all together as a prospect, but with a fastball consistently reaching the mid-90’s and a pair of solid secondary pitches in his slider and curveball, the Rays see another promising pitcher.
Despite lacking big-name stars, the Rays will wind up having among deeper and more solid rotations in the American League in 2015. In all likelihood, this rotation will surpass the 2008 rotation, but won’t outdo the talented 2012. There are five (even six) strong starting pitchers here, but Cobb and Archer have a long way to go before they can match the duo of Price and Shields.
Perhaps in a year or two, we will be able to look at the Tampa Bay Rays rotation and see the best starting five the team has ever seen. What is special about this group is that Moore could join Cobb and Archer and give this team three aces, something they have never had before. The Rays need their pitchers to live up to their potential, but the talent is there for them to match 2012 and just maybe exceed it.