The discussion this off-season has focused on the incredible depth the Rays have in their starting pitching plans. James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Davis are all auditioning for five spots while Alex Cobb likely has a date with extended spring training waiting for him. Rarely, if ever, is Alex Torres mentioned in these discussions and with good reason. He has but eight innings of experience at the big league level that spanned just four outings bookmarked by two drastically different events.
In his first appearance, he came in during a 4-4 tie with the Yankees shortly after the all-star break and proceeded to throw 44 pitches that inning while struggling to find the strike zone and gave up the game-winning run. In his last appearance, he came in early to relieve a terribly ineffective Niemann start on September 24th and threw five of the most important innings to the improbably September success for the team to earn his first career win.
Not only is the rotation crowded, but as Tommy Rancel has pointed out, so is the bullpen. With all of the starting pitching depth and bullpen depth on the 40 man roster, is Torres destined to spend another full season in Durham or is something else in store for him?
In six seasons of minor league baseball, Torres has pitched 577.1 innings of baseball while allowing 502 hits and only 24 home runs thanks to some rather extreme groundball rates for a starting pitcher in which his lowest rate for any one season is 48 percent. Torres' ability to keep the ball on the ground has never been in doubt, but his ability to find the strike zone on a consistent basis has been. For his career, Torres has a 5.0 walk rate and has never had a full season walk rate below 4.4 but strikeout rates of 9.0 or higher each of the past three seasons has helped offset the issues that come along with walks.
One thing that stands out when diving into the numbers with Torres is how he is a different pitcher from the windup than he is from the stretch. Consider the following splits from 2009 to 2011 for Torres (data via milb.com)
Those are some rather dramatic splits for a starting pitcher and helps explain why someone with a high walk rate has had ERA's of 2.77, 3.47, and 3.08 while part of the Tampa Bay organization. From 2009 to 2011, he has never had a season OPS higher than .626 with runners on base while his OPS with the bases empty has gone up each of the past three seasons to a career high .825 last season. With that kind of trend developing, should the starting rotation depth stay in place, it is possible to envision Torres taking up a role in the bullpen this coming season should the squad's health not hold up as it has in past seasons.
If Torres is added to the pen this season, what would his role be? The team has multiple left-handed options in J.P. Howell and Jake McGee on the 25 man roster already and Cesar Ramos is still in the picture as well. Here are Torres' splits from 2009 to 2011:
Overall, he is rather neutral as he has shown an ability to limit both lefties and righties without the dramatic splits that are present in his bases status situation.
Everyone knows Joe Maddon loves his toys in regards to position players that can fill multiple roles on a roster and he may very well have a pitcher that can function in the same manner in Torres. Torres is already a notable pitching prospect on his starting pitching merits, but has shown an innate ability to pitch better from the stretch when runners are on base as well as an ability to be effective against lefties and righties. Simply put, Alex Torres could be the swiss army knife for the Rays this season whenever the opportunity presents itself.