Tampa Bay Rays: Projecting the 2012 Rotation

Peter WardellCorrespondent IFebruary 8, 2012

Tampa Bay Rays: Projecting the 2012 Rotation

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    Three of the last four seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays have unveiled a new top pitching prospect late in the season. Each season, they've dominated.

    In 2008, it was former top overall selection David Price who recorded the save in Game 7 of the ALCS just weeks after his major league debut. In 2010, Jeremy Hellickson went a perfect 4-0 in four starts down the stretch. And just last season, 22-year-old Matt Moore made his second big league start a memorable one, dominating the Texas Rangers for seven innings of scoreless ball in Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS.

    It's been quite the run for the Tampa Bay rotation which finished fourth in baseball last season with a 3.53 ERA. That mark was the best by a rotation in franchise history.

    While the top three rotation slots have been locked down by Price, Hellickson and veteran James Shields, the final two remain open to competition heading into spring training.

    -Can Matt Moore pick up where he left off in 2011, claiming a slot?
    -Will Jeff Niemann be ousted after three years in the rotation?
    -Are Alexander Torres and Alex Cobb ready to compete after dominant showings at Triple-A Durham?

    All of these questions will be answered this spring, but for now here’s a look at how the Rays' rotation is shaping up.

1. James Shields, RHP

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    For the fifth straight season, right-hander James Shields finished the year with over 200 innings. While in the past his underlying stats have always bested his counting numbers, this time around the 30-year-old veteran assembled a Cy Young-caliber campaign.

    For years, Shields has been one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball. He's durable, consistently posts quality strikeout rates (career 7.5 K/9) and low walk rates (career 2.1 BB/9), but until last season he had never cracked a 3.50 ERA, nor earned an All-Star bid. He  achieved both in 2011, finishing with a 16-12 record, 2.82 ERA and a league-high 11 complete games.

    After his breakout season, "Big Game James" will be looked to carry the rotation again in 2012 and is more than capable of shouldering the burden.

    Fans interested in pitch-type values: check out this piece by Michael Barr of Roto Hardball. According to Barr, Shields' improvement may have come from pitch selection more than anything — something certainly sustainable going forward.

2. David Price, LHP

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    Whereas Shields commanded the spotlight in 2011, 26-year-old David Price took another step forward as well, asserting himself as one of the game’s top young southpaws.

    Just one year removed from finishing runner-up in American League Cy Young voting, Price had a bit of a down year numbers-wise, posting an unimpressive 12-13 record and a 3.49 ERA. Those numbers hardly tell the whole story however, as Price also managed to produce career highs in both strikeout rate (8.7 K/9) and walk rate (2.5 BB/9), great signs for the future.

    Going forward, Price will likely settle somewhere between his 2010 and 2011 numbers across the board, giving the Rays a tremendous 1-2 punch along with Shields.  

3. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP

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    After emerging onto the scene late in 2010, Jeremy Hellickson exceeded even more expectations in 2011, dominating American League hitters en route to the Rookie of the Year Award.

    The 24-year-old right-hander had a terrific rookie season, finishing 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA, second best on the team to only James Shields. Overall, he was a consistent, reliable starter for the Rays, allowing four runs or more just once over his final 17 starts.

    While his unimpressive strikeout (5.6 K/9) and walk (3.4 BB/9) rates does give some cause for concern, Hellickson proved to be a solid, safe bet going forward. His pitch selection and fly ball tendencies may indeed keep him from achieving his ace ceiling but overall, Hellickson projects no worse than a No. 3 starter for the long haul.

4. Matt Moore, RHP

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    Tampa Bay not only excels at developing pitchers, but they also prepare them to the point that once they hit the big leagues they are there to stay. After dominating down the stretch last season, rookie right-hander Matt Moore, in my mind, has undoubtedly earned a rotation slot entering 2012.

    Moore, 22, has been one of the minor league’s most electric hurlers over the last three seasons, posting strikeout rates above 12.0 (K/9) at nearly every level he’s pitched (all but 2011, Double-A Montgomery – 11.5 K/9). Rarely are numbers of that magnitude seen, let alone from a starting pitcher.

    After slotting behind Hellickson in most prospect lists entering the 2011 season, Moore tore through Southern League (Double-A) and International League (Triple-A) batters, finishing the season with a combined 12-3 record, 1.92 ERA and 12.2 strikeout rate.

    Of all the Rays' former top pitching prospects, Moore may actually have the most hype entering his rookie season and for good cause. Barring serious injury, Moore could very feasibly develop into the staff ace just a couple years down the road. He really is that good.

5. Jeff Niemann, RHP

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    Pending Moore’s inclusion in the rotation, the fifth spot will likely boil down to a Grapefruit League battle between right-handers Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis. Despite the fact that the 28-year-old Niemann was left off of the Rays’ postseason roster last season, I fully expect him to take the call.

    While Niemann's value is often judged by his injury concerns, he is simply a better pitcher than Davis. Whereas Davis is an extreme fly ball pitcher with a low strikeout rate and poor command, Niemann at the very least challenges hitters and generates ground balls consistently. While Niemann is prone to the occasional blowup, for the most part he eats up innings and keeps the Rays in the game.

    Last season, Niemann went 10-3 with a 3.55 ERA and a .239 batting average against after returning from the disabled list in late June. Although he will likely never develop into the front-of-the-rotation starter many projected back in 2005, Niemann is a terrific No. 4/No. 5 starter and should fill that role for the Rays this season. 

Best of the Rest

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    Wade Davis, RHP

    The 26-year-old Davis will likely compete with Niemann for No. 5 duties this spring. He has good stuff but his walk rate is a growing concern (3.1 BB/9) and his strikeout rate has dwindled three straight seasons (5.1 K/9).

    Alex Cobb, RHP

    Cobb, 24, made a great showing in nine starts down the stretch last fall after dominating at Triple-A Durham. However with Niemann and Davis, it makes little sense to push him into the big league staff this early. Count on seeing him by midseason though if he continues his minor league dominance.

    Alex Torres, LHP

    The most electric of the four starters competing for No. 5 duties, Torres needs a little more seasoning in the minors this year after posting a 5.1 BB/9 rate at Triple-A Durham last season. His 9.3 career strikeout rate is legitimate and exciting however.

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