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Tampa Bay Rays: What Will Be Matt Moore’s September Role?

By Robbie Knopf
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We can say with certainty now that Matt Moore will be back with the Tampa Bay Rays at the beginning of September. His first six starts in the majors after Tommy John Surgery were terrible, but he went down to Triple-A Durham and has pitched markedly better, striking out 16 in his last start. His fastball is reaching the mid-90’s more often while his changeup and curveball are far more reminiscent of the strong secondary pitches they once were. Most importantly, he is throwing more strikes and quality strikes. Moore has shown everyone that he is a deserving major league pitcher once again.

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However, it isn’t as though the Rays have a rotation spot to give Moore. We know how talented he is, but his stock has fallen far enough that it would be crazy for him to displace any of the team’s current five starters. If Drew Smyly returns to struggling after returning from his torn labrum or Nate Karns wears down as he approaches his career-high in innings, then Moore could certainly start for the Rays. Unless that happens, though, Moore can’t be called “a returning ace” and push a pitcher who is doing well to the bullpen. We can be cautiously optimistic about Moore, but we can’t say that he would be better than say Erasmo Ramirez the rest of the year.

With that in mind, the clear move is to put Moore in the bullpen, as wasteful as that might be. If he is throwing strikes, he certainly has the stuff to pull a Wade Davis (or, this season, an Alex Colome) and be an effective reliever capable of tossing multiple innings. At the end of the day, though, there are several reasons that the Rays should not put Moore in a conventional bullpen role.

Firstly, Moore hasn’t done this before and he would need at least two or three days of rest between appearances. It would be possible to convert him right now if the Rays like, but Moore just got back from surgery and we remember Jeff Niemann, who got hurt shortly after moving to relief. Beyond that, if Moore was pitching in relief, he wouldn’t be stretched out in case of injury or poor performance by one of the current starters. Finally, we have the reasoning that Moore would simply be tossing so few innings, limiting his impact on the team and also hurting him for next season, when he will hope to be a 175-inning pitcher again.

The best compromise for Moore’s September role may be to keep him stretched out and turn him into a long reliever. However, not a long reliever in the conventional sense. The Rays’ relievers have heavy workloads and may be starting to wear down. Having a guy like Moore who could throw four or five innings every four or five days would be extremely valuable. Karns could start and throw the first five innings, and Moore could finish the game if he pitches well, saving the rest of the bullpen.

The Rays could even use Moore to have quicker hooks on their pitchers. If Erasmo Ramirez can only give them 4 innings one game, it isn’t as much of a concern given that they can have Moore ready to toss the next 3 or 4 innings before they go to their late-inning relievers. We know how much every game counts in September, and having a guy like Moore–as long as he is pitching well–could help the Rays play every game with that playoff mindset where they will pull a starter early in a game if they think it will increase their chances of winning.

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Let me clarify that I wouldn’t call this a “tandem starting role.” If Moore is lined up to pitch on Karns’ day but Karns is sharp and pitches into the seventh, then there is no reason to use Moore and he should be saved for a later game. There is the potential problem of every starter pitching well, but A) that would mean that the Rays are doing well anyway, and B) Moore could always toss an inning or two to get in some work. In addition, if Moore is ever unavailable in a game where the Rays need length, a guy like Matt Andriese is a qualified backup option. The ideal would be to use Moore for multiple innings whenever a starter departs a game relatively early and only occasionally for say the last two or three innings of game.

This would be a role that is more comfortable for Moore and allow him to throw as many innings as possible to remainder of the season. For the Tampa Bay Rays, meanwhile, the potential benefits are a more rested bullpen, less hesitation about pulling a struggling starter, and more fluid starting depth. Moore appeared in a matter something like this when he burst onto the scene in September of 2011, and with no innings constraints and the opportunity to return to the team on September 1st rather than come up in the middle of September, he has the ability to make an even bigger impact this season.

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A word on Blake Snell: he would also be interesting for a role like this, but he is approaching his innings limit and it makes more sense to use him in shorter stints.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays MiLB Recap: Jaime Schultz K’s 10 for Biscuits

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