Last offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays brought in veteran left-hander Erik Bedard to serve as rotation depth. His presence proved to be important after Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson were out to begin the year. This season, however, the Rays signed no Bedard-esque arm, and that could seemingly go down as a mistake. After all, Drew Smyly is injured, Alex Colome was delayed by visa issues, and each of the Rays’ Triple-A starters has some problem.
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The thing to remember, though, is that a starting pitcher does not have to be in Rays camp to begin the season in the team’s starting rotation. Specifically, there are several veteran starters who could be possibilities for the Rays if they do not make the Opening Day rosters of their current franchises and exercise the opt-outs in their contracts. A few more available players are out-of-options pitchers who will end up on waivers. Let’s go through a few of those names, beginning with Eric Stults right now.
Stults, a lefty who turned 35 in December, is currently in a battle for a rotation spot with the Atlanta Braves after spending most of the last three years with the San Diego Padres. Stults did a great job eating innings for the Padres, going 27-33 with a 3.87 ERA (88 ERA+) in 79 starts and 4 relief appearances with the team and topping 200 innings in 2013.
I noted the ERA+ number, which I don’t normally do, because Petco Park is the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in baseball. That is something we need to remember as we look at Stults’ 4.30 ERA in 2014–his ERA+ was actually just 78, meaning that he was 22% below how a league average pitcher would do at Petco. However, it is not as though the Rays would need to give something up in a trade to acquire Stults, and as a temporary fill-in, he looks fine.
Eric Stults’ most impressive pitch fits right in with the Rays: his changeup. While he uses a circle-change grip, which is different from every Rays starter other than Chris Archer, it is still a plus pitch that is both Stults’ put-away offering and his best option when he wants to force a groundball. Stults already throws changeups against both lefty and righty batters, but if he was with the Rays, they might have him throw the pitch even more.
Stults needs to get everything he can out of his change because the rest of his arsenal is below-average. He averaged just 88.69 MPH with his fastball, and neither his curveball nor his slider is particularly effective. His curveball averaged just 68.47 MPH last season, more than 10 MPH less than his all of other pitches, but when batters were able to wait on it, they were often able to make hard contact.
The biggest question of all, though, is whether Stults will make the Atlanta Braves’ roster out of spring training. The probability certainly increased when the Braves got word that Mike Minor could start the season on the disabled list, but he still needs to compete with Cody Martin, Michael Foltynewicz, Manny Banuelos, and fellow non-roster invitees Wandy Rodriguez and Chien-Ming Wang.
However, those alternatives to Stults are not particularly imposing. Martin could have been selected by anyone in the Rule 5 Draft, but no one considered him worth their time. Foltynewicz managed just a 5.08 ERA at Triple-A last year (identical to Nate Karns) and was unimpressive in the Houston Astros’ bullpen. While Banuelos is a former top prospect, he pitched in just 4 Triple-A games in 2014 as he returned from injury.
Then, among the veterans, Rodriguez’s injury concerns are even worse as he is coming off knee surgery and missed nearly all of 2013 with a forearm strain (Burch Smith‘s 2014 injury). Finally, Wang looked decent at Triple-A last year, but you have to go back to 2011 for the last time he was even remotely successful in the major leagues.
Looking at that group, Eric Stults would have to look terrible this spring or multiple prospects would need to dominate for him to fail to crack the Braves’ Opening Day roster. The Rays will have an eye on Braves camp to see whether Stults will become available, but the chances are that he will be in Atlanta’s rotation and unable to help the Rays with their current depth concerns.