Tampa Bay Rays: Triple-A Starting Rotation Dominant in Opening Series

Mike Rosenbaum@GoldenSombreroMLB Prospects Lead WriterApril 9, 2012

RHP Chris Archer allowed one earned run on two hits over six innings on Sunday. He struck out eight and walked three.
RHP Chris Archer allowed one earned run on two hits over six innings on Sunday. He struck out eight and walked three.Elsa/Getty Images

Featuring one of the best—if not the best—pitching rotations in all of baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays have an enviable problem on their hands:

They simply have too many excellent young pitchers.

However, despite how advanced some of their pitching prospects may be, there's simply no room for them in the Rays' star-studded rotation of James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Jeff Niemann.

Therefore, the Rays have stashed their impressive crop of pitching prospects—two are ranked in the organization's Top 10—at Triple-A Durham to begin the 2012 season.

And thus far, Alex Cobb, Alex Torres, Bryan Augenstein and Chris Archer have been just as dominant for Triple-A Durham as the Rays' big-league starting rotation.

On Thursday night, Durham won their season opener, 4-3, over Gwinnett in 12 innings, as a two-out infield error allowed the winning run to score.

While the win definitely started the season on the right note for the Bulls, all the postgame buzz surrounded their starting pitcher, Alex Cobb.

The 24-year-old right-hander was dominant in his first start of the season, allowing one earned run on six hits, while striking out eight and allowing no walks.

Considering that he’s the only one with significant big-league experience, Cobb is the logical staff ace for Durham.

Making nine starts for the Rays last season, he was 3-2 with a 3.90 xFIP in 52.2 innings. 

In game two of the opening series on the following night, the Bulls found themselves on the other end of an extra-inning contest, as they dropped the game to Gwinnett in 11 innings, 3-0.

Alex Torres—the Ray’s No. 5 prospect—followed Cobb’s lead by two-hitting the Braves over 4.1 innings, striking out seven and issuing three walks.  Had it not been for some command issues that emerged in fourth inning and led to an elevated pitch count (94), Torres might have notched double-digit strikeouts in six innings.

Like Cobb, Torres has some experience in the majors, albeit only eight innings in late 2011.  As it was on Friday, Torres’ only impediment has been his control, as he posted a 10.13 K/9 and 7.88 BB/9 rate out of the Rays’ bullpen following his call-up.

On Saturday, it was 6’6” right-hander Bryan Augenstein’s turn to dominate the Gwinnett offense—and that’s precisely what he did.  Pitching six strong innings, he allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits, and notched eight strikeouts without issuing a walk.  In his sixth and final inning, Augenstein struck out the side after allowing a leadoff single.

Since entering the minor leagues in 2007, Augenstein has appeared in 12 big-league games, two of which were starts with the Diamondbacks in 2009.  The right-hander pitched for the Cardinals last season, logging 5.2 innings in relief and posting a 5.24 xFIP, 9.53 K/9 and 4.76 BB/9 rate.

In the series finale on Sunday, Chris Archer—the Rays’ No. 4 prospect—was equally dominant, as he too surrendered only one earned run over six innings in the Bulls' 7-4 win.  The 6’3” right-hander allowed two hits (one of which being a solo home run to Ernesto Mejia) while striking out eight and walking three.

Granted it was a step in the right direction in terms of overall output, but Archer’s command was shaky at times, as threw 49 of 86 pitches for a strike.

The right-hander’s command was his greatest detriment in 2011, when he registered a 5.36 BB/9 rate in 134.1 innings at Double-A.

However, his fastball command was noticeably better on Sunday, which continues to be Archer’s key to success.  When he’s able to locate his heater, his double-plus slider is that much more effective against both right and left-handed hitters.

Although one can’t expect the Durham Bulls’ starting rotation to utterly dominate all year as they did against Gwinnett to open the season, it houses four arms that can make an impact at the big-league level. 

However, due to the depth of the Rays’ starting rotation, they will have to patiently wait their turn, although I expect that nearly all of these prospects will work out of the team’s bullpen at some point during the 2012 season.

And since we’re talking about the Rays’ pitching prospects, left-hander Matt Moore—Prospect Pipeline’s No. 1 overall prospect—will make his season debut on Tuesday afternoon (1:05 PM ET) when he takes the mound against the Detroit Tigers.