For the first time in recent memory, the Tampa Bay Rays will have a series of competitions for starting jobs in spring training. There are always a few spots up for grabs, usually a bullpen job, a bench spot, and then say one regular job, but it’s never anything like this. In under a week, the Rays will start the process of figuring out the identities of their starting shortstop, starting left and right fielders, fifth starter, backup catcher, a pair of bullpens arms, and 25th man.
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Luckily, the Rays have a series of quality candidates for the available positions. In the outfield, for instance, Kevin Kiermaier and Steven Souza could each be above-average starters while David DeJesus is nothing to scoff at himself. For the fifth starter position, meanwhile, Alex Colome looks ready for an opportunity while Nate Karns gives the Rays another interesting candidate. The wild card of that race, though, is Burch Smith, and it will be fascinating to see what he can give the Rays.
Smith, 24, amazingly went from a 14th round pick to his big league debut against the Rays in under two years. Since then, though, he has run into some trouble. His 36.1 big league innings in 2013 were rocky as he managed just a 6.44 ERA. In 2014, meanwhile, he pitched in just two big league games before hitting the DL with a forearm strain that wound up costing him the season.
Smith returned to action in the Arizona Fall League and did not particularly impress, managing just a 5.52 ERA and a 9-5 strikeout to walk ratio in 9 appearances and 14.2 innings pitched. Entering this spring, he has work to do as he hopes to prove that he is healthy. Even once he does, though, his development as a pitcher is not over yet either.
Smith stands out for a fastball that can reach the mid-90’s and a good changeup. However, his fastball velocity has tended to decrease as games have gone on, going from 93.22 MPH the first time through the order to 92.11 MPH the second time to 91.56 MPH the third. If we look at the Rays’ top five starters and add in Alex Colome, and Nate Karns, then only Moore and Drew Smyly have such a pattern for their fastballs.
For Moore and Smyly, though, the differences are so slight–Moore’s fastball drops by .37 MPH while Smyly’s falls by .20 MPH. In addition, Moore didn’t show that pattern in 2013 or 2014 while Smyly actually exhibited the opposite tendency in 2014 as his fastball velocity went up as games went on. In any event, the biggest takeaway from this is that the amount of velocity that Burch Smith loses from his fastball during outings is crazy.
Smith’s changeup is also closer to “solid” than it is to a dynamic plus pitch like that of Alex Cobb–it likely trails Jake Odorizzi‘s split-change as well. At this point, Smith throws it against batters from both sides, but his command of it is iffy, leading to few groundballs and far too many home runs. Smith will need to continue refining it to make it into a true put-away offering, and luckily for him, we know how great the Rays are with changeups.
Then we get to Smith’s breaking ball, which is the weakest part of his arsenal at this point. In 2014, he managed just a 2.70% whiff rate on his curveball to go along with a 1.63-to-1 groundball to flyball ratio. Cobb, Chris Archer, Smyly, and Moore both easily beat him in both regards while even Odorizzi, who throws the worst breaking balls on the current staff, managed an astronomically higher 7.40% whiff rate on such pitches last season.
If Smith’s fastball and changeup were good enough, they would be content to refine his breaking ball at the major league level. That is what they did with pitchers like Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson. However, there is no reason to think that they are, so unless Smith makes rapid improvement now, it is difficult to describe him as major league-ready as a starter despite his experience with the San Diego Padres.
There is some reason for hope–Smith is currently toying with a slider. If he could get some tips from Archer and burst onto the scene with it in spring training like Odorizzi did with his split-change in 2014, then he could earn consideration for the Rays’ fifth starter job. However, other than a scenario like that, it seems clear that Smith will start 2014 at Triple-A Durham.
The Rays see the components of an effective big league starting pitcher in Burch Smith, and they will hope to put all of the pieces together. They will likely start by sending him to the minor leagues, but with continued health and progress, he has the ability to work his way into big league consideration.
Given that he touched 99 MPH out of the bullpen in 2013, Smith could help the Rays in relief if the need arises. He may be a better candidate for such a role than a pitcher like Nate Karns, who has higher upside out of the rotation. Until then, though, Smith will work as a starter in the minor leagues and see if he can get his arsenal up to par.