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How Matt Moore's Season-Ending Injury Shakes Up the Tight AL East Race

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How Matt Moore's Season-Ending Injury Shakes Up the Tight AL East Race
USA Today

Compared to most clubs, the Tampa Bay Rays entered 2014 with a solid track record in regards to pitching injuries.

So yeah, it's only natural that Rays pitchers are suddenly dropping like flies.

After the team placed right-hander Alex Cobb on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left oblique on Sunday, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times has reported that young left-hander Matt Moore is going in for Tommy John surgery:

This comes as no surprise. After Moore made an early exit from a start against the Kansas City Royals last Monday with an apparent elbow injury, Roger Mooney of The Tampa Tribune reported that tests had found a tear in Moore's ulnar collateral ligament.

Moore and the Rays tried to avoid surgery, but we can now chalk him up as another example for how hard it is to avoid Tommy John whenever there's a torn UCL involved.

"What was coming out, it's a shame to be have to be shut down right now but it just wasn't comfortable," Moore told Topkin. "Being stuck in the position I am right now, where it's not exactly comfortable but it's not exactly completely broke, it's kind of one of those things where you know it's going to get worse."

Cobb will be eventually be back to reclaim his spot in Joe Maddon's rotation. Moore, on the other hand, will be out the rest of the year, leaving the Rays to salvage what had a chance to be an excellent rotation.

That's going to be easier said than done, which certainly bodes well for the rest of the AL East.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Now, true, you could take the glass-half-full stance and argue that the Rays really aren't losing much with Moore's injury. Though he only allowed three earned runs, "rocky" is a good word to describe his first two starts of 2014. He surrendered 10 hits and five walks in 10 innings, striking out just six.

This poor start out of the gate wasn't entirely out of the blue, either. If we look at the following data from FanGraphs, we can see that Moore's struggles really started in the second half of 2013:

Matt Moore's Downward Trend
Split GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/FB ERA FIP WAR
1st Half 19 107.1 9.1 4.6 6.7 3.44 3.65 1.7
2nd Half 8 43.0 7.3 4.4 11.1 2.93 4.70 0.1
2014 2 10.0 5.4 4.5 11.1 2.70 4.84 0

FanGraphs

Everything here should be familiar and/or self-explanatory, except for maybe FIP. That's Fielding Independent Pitching, which measures what a pitcher's ERA should have been by focusing on things he can control: strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs.

FIP hasn't liked Moore nearly as much as ERA has ever since the second half of 2013, and you can see why. His walk rate remained a problem, and his strikeouts decreased while his home runs increased. 

Not helping last year was a trip to the DL with an elbow injury in late July that contributed to a slight loss of velocity. Moore went from an average fastball of 92.5 miles per hour in the first half to an average of 92.1 in the second half. Worse, he was sitting at an average of 91.5 in his first two starts this year.

Here's the issue with the glass-half-full perspective, however: It ignores the upside of Moore's presence in Tampa Bay's rotation.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

"Upside" and Moore's name pretty much went hand in hand, after all. Baseball America had him as the No. 2 prospect in baseball heading into 2012. Beyond that, the ZiPS projection system (via FanGraphs) had Moore projected to be second behind David Price in WAR among Rays starters this year.

So though the loss of Moore isn't a huge loss in the realm of reality, it's a sizable loss in the realm of what might have been. What the Rays have to figure out now is how they can make a starting rotation they might have had into a starting rotation they do have.

Here's a hunch that Cesar Ramos isn't the answer. He had just three career starts heading into his spot start on Sunday, and he failed to inspire confidence by allowing four earned runs in just two innings.

According to Roger Mooney, the other candidates the Rays were contemplating to replace Moore were Erik Bedard, Nathan Karns and Mike Montgomery. In order, that's:

  • A guy who hasn't had a good year since 2007 (Bedard).
  • A guy who had a 7.50 ERA and 8.38 FIP in three major league starts in 2013 (Karns).
  • A guy with zero major league starts and a career 5.16 ERA at the Triple-A level (Montgomery).

The Rays do have more prospects than just Montgomery, but they aren't candidates to help right away. Taylor Guerrieri is recovering from his own Tommy John operation. Alex Colome is serving a 50-game PED suspension. With a 4.7 BB/9 through his first two starts at Triple-A, Enny Romero is still battling control problems.

The Rays could hope that Jake Odorizzi can step up, which is possible given that his 3.96 FIP says he's been much better than his 5.73 ERA. There's not quite enough to erase the inexperience question mark, though.

Mike Carlson
Another fun fact: Hellickson has given up 49 home runs over the last two seasons.

The Rays could also just bank on the eventual return of Jeremy Hellickson from his own (less major) elbow surgery. But given that he had an ugly 5.17 ERA and a 4.22 FIP that wasn't a ton better last year, it's probably best if the Rays downplay their expectations for him.

In all, it's not a good situation. In Price, Cobb, Chris Archer and Moore, the Rays entered the season with a rotation that was going to be something special if everyone lived up to his billing. Moore's struggles put that in jeopardy, and now his injury all but dooms the Rays to having a top-heavy rotation.

A rotation like that is fine in the AL East to the extent that it should be good enough to stack up against the rotations in Baltimore and Toronto. The first is lacking in upside and the other is littered with question marks.

But a top-heavy rotation will make it harder for the Rays to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees, both of whom have rotations that look pretty good next to Tampa Bay's weakened rotation:

Rotation Comparison: Rays vs. Red Sox vs. Yankees
Spot Rays Red Sox Yankees
1 David Price Jon Lester CC Sabathia
2 Cobb/Hellickson John Lackey Hiroki Kuroda
3 Chris Archer Felix Doubront Ivan Nova
4 Jake Odorizzi Jake Peavy Masahiro Tanaka
5 ? Clay Buchholz Michael Pineda

MLB.com

Before the season even began, ZiPS was already favoring the rotations in Boston and New York. The Rays were projected to get 11.4 WAR out of their opening five starters, compared to 13.5 for Boston and 14.4 for New York. Between Moore struggling out of the gate and then getting hurt, the rotations of the Red Sox and Yankees now stack up even better.

A change in the winds, indeed. Between 2008 and 2013, Rays starters compiled a 3.85 ERA and 4.05 FIP. Both were tops among AL East clubs. This is a team that's used to having better starting pitching than the most relevant competition.

It's doubtful that will be the case this year, and that's certainly going to make it tougher for the Rays to finish atop the AL East for the first time since 2010.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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