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Tampa Bay Rays: Will Blake Snell Begin 2016 in Rotation?

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The fact that Blake Snell won the 2015 Minor League Player of the Year award according to both Baseball America and USA Today does not mean that he is the best prospect in the minors. However, he always had the upside to be a very good major league starting pitcher, and his numbers certainly appear to indicate a breakthrough. We can say that the sky is the limit with regards to what he can give the Tampa Bay Rays in the coming years.

The next question is when exactly Snell will begin impacting the Rays’ big league roster, and fans will undoubtedly want the answer to be “as soon as possible.” The Rays declined to call up Snell this September because they are out of the playoff race, making any benefit he could give them pale in comparison to the considerations of being cautious with his workload and delaying his free agency clock. Snell has already thrown 134 innings this season, well above his previous career-high of 115.1 that he set in 2014, and that is before we take into account any additional stress from pitching in the upper minors for the first time.

Next season, though, will be a different story. Snell will enter spring training with a full head of steam and as much talent as anyone the Rays have. His 134 innings this year set him up to throw around 160 frames next season, which is less than ideal but certainly enough to work with. Jake Odorizzi finished with 168 innings pitched in his rookie year in 2014 while Drew Smyly still hasn’t thrown 155 innings in a season yet. The Rays’ decision regarding Snell will likely come down to three factors: their rotation depth, his readiness, and the financial side of the game.

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The Tampa Bay Rays have too many starting pitchers, and we better not forget that Alex Cobb is due to join the group in the second half of 2016. To begin the year, Chris Archer and Odorizzi are locks to be in the starting five while Smyly is a step behind that–let’s give him a 95% chance of being in the rotation. That leaves Matt MooreErasmo Ramirez, Nate Karns, and Snell to compete for the final two spots, and all of them have good cases to make it. We could also throw Alex Colome‘s name into the mix, but given all of the alternatives and the precedent of Wade Davis, it makes more sense for him to keep appearing out of the bullpen. Then there is Matt Andriese, who is also further back of the pack because his ceiling is much lower than the others’.

A trade seems likely, and Karns seems like the best bet to go. There has to be concern about him regressing given his poor results at Triple-A last season and his struggles to end his starting tenure, and if the Rays don’t believe that his success from this year is sustainable, then this offseason is the right time to sell high on him. Another option is Erasmo Ramirez, who has also experienced success somewhat out of the blue, but Karns has more trade value and may come with more reasons for concern. We also can’t completely ignore that Ramirez and Moore are both currently starting while Karns is not.

Moore is a quite interesting case as his talent is tremendous but his inconsistency following Tommy John Surgery remains a serious concern. In any event, the Rays are unlikely to sell low on him but also can’t guarantee him a rotation spot for next season. The hope is that he can finish the year with a few good outings and come back stronger next spring after having the offseason to recover–it is a common thing that Tommy John patients are better after that first offseason. Moore has enough ability that he will likely receive at least a few more chances to start next year unless the Rays have no other choice.

If Snell dominates in the exhibition season while Moore can’t throw strikes, that would be one reason to move Moore to the bullpen. Or both of them could look so good that it makes sense to move the lower-upside Ramirez to relief. That being said, the Rays certainly don’t need to have Snell in their Opening Day rotation next year unless injuries strike or Moore pitches himself out of consideration. It would be perfectly reasonable for the Rays to begin 2016 with a rotation of Archer, Odorizzi, Smyly, Ramirez, and Moore.

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Even so, it wouldn’t be crazy for the Rays to make a switch early in the year. Moore is a high-risk pitcher at this point while it is questionable that Ramirez would stand in Snell’s way if Snell is ready. It is worth noting, though, that Snell may not be ready quite yet. He threw more than 5 innings just once in his 9 Triple-A starts, and while that had more to do with the Rays’ desire to limit his innings than any issue with him, the Rays may want to see how he does facing opposing batting orders three times. That is a valid enough reason to keep him in the minors that doing so would not simply be an attempt to save money down the line by delaying his free agency.

Snell could hypothetically remove the financial considerations by signing a Moore-esque extension before his first full season in the majors, but that shouldn’t make a huge difference. If he starts the year at Triple-A Durham, it would be to continue his development as a pitcher and help the Rays figure out what to do with pitchers like Moore and Ramirez moving forward. The finances are only a small part of the equation. The Rays may keep Snell down for a few extra days at the start of the year like the Cubs did with Kris Bryant this season, but beyond that, we have to think that they will be more concerned with who belongs on their pitching staff than saving cash.

Blake Snell certainly has a chance to start 2016 in the Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation, and it will be exciting to see him in big league camp next spring. On the other hand, the Rays can afford to be patient with him given their rotation depth and it seems likely that he will receive a month or two more of seasoning in the minor leagues. It won’t be long before Rays fans will have another anticipated prospect debut to be exhilarated about, but a little bit more patience may be necessary before Snell’s promotion finally takes place.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays Game 145: Missed Chances Against Betances

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