Recent news of Alex Cobb returning to the mound and preparing for a minor league rehab stint have prompted the question of who he will replace. As it stands right now, David Price, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson are all locks for the first three spots in the starting rotation. The two players competing for the final spot, once Cobb returns, are Chris Archer and Roberto Hernandez.
Just from my observation, it appears that many fans expect, even though they frown upon the idea, that the Rays will option Chris Archer to the minor leagues, handing Roberto Hernandez the spot. I, for one, would be very disappointed if that is the decision the Rays make.
When the Rays first signed Roberto Hernandez, I was skeptical. However, around a month and a half ago, I wrote an article that revealed Roberto Hernandez was pitching quite well. While Hernandez was unfairly criticized by fans because of his ugly ERA, I declared that Hernandez's components suggested he was pitching better than it appeared. While Hernandez's ERA and FIP were both poor, his xFIP and SIERA suggested future improvement; the Achilles heel for him was a high HR/FB%.
At the time of the article, Hernandez sported a healthy 8.04 K/9. Since then, the rate has slipped; his K/9 is down to 6.98. Thanks to an even lower walk rate, his xFIP remains in the mid-3's. His SIERA, which was 3.46, is up to 3.63. While I don't think any of this is strong evidence that Hernandez will fall apart, I believe my 3.85 FIP expectation going forward looks optimistic given his worrisome decline in strikeouts.
On talent alone, Roberto Hernandez is strong enough to be the Rays' fifth starter. One could make a reasonable argument that Hernandez may actually pitch better than Archer for the rest of the season. But while performance is a large part of the equation, it isn't the sole factor.
It seems that fans have made two arguments for why the Rays will defer to Roberto Hernandez over Chris Archer. The first is that management will refuse to designate for assignment or demote to the bullpen a player who is getting paid a reasonable sum.
If I, a clueless high school kid who thinks he knows a little something about baseball, can grasp the basic concept of sunk cost, then I find it ridiculous to believe that Andrew Friedman, with his superior knowledge of economic concepts, would fall prey to this fallacy. With guaranteed contacts in baseball, Hernandez gets paid his salary no matter whether he is in the rotation or off the team. When the Rays gave Hernandez his contract during the offseason, it was not a guarantee of a roster spot for the whole season. The Rays needed a stop-gap before Archer was major league ready, and Hernandez has capably filled that role.
Additionally, there is no indication from the Rays past moves that they would allow Hernandez's salary to influence their decision. Many point to Pat Burrell as a similar example, proclaiming that the Rays kept him for his second year strictly because of his contract. In reality, the situations are very different. The Rays signed Burrell with the hope that he would be an impact player and as an endorsement of his talent. If the Rays thought Burrell was talented before 2009, it would take more than one poor season to make them drastically alter their opinion. Unlike Burrell, Hernandez was never supposed to star for the team. Instead, he adds to the Rays pitching depth while slotting into the back end of the rotation. When the Rays felt Burrell was no longer the best option, they cut ties. Expect the same to happen with Roberto.
The second argument is that the Rays tend to cling to their depth, so since Chris Archer has an option, he will be sent to the minor leagues. Of the two arguments, this one bears more substance. If the Rays were to cut Hernandez, that would leave Odorizzi as the only real option in Triple-A (Colome is injured). The obvious solution is to send Roberto to the bullpen. Thus, in the case of an emergency, the Rays still have the starting pitching depth to continue competing. Jamey Wright, despite his solid performance, is the logical choice to be replaced.
I know that there are times when we delve into the numbers and and take too much of a saber-oriented perspective, causing us to overlook the mental side of the game. In my opinion, there is reason to believe that sending Archer down to the minor leagues once again could be damaging, putting him in a bad place mentally. This is a guy who is known to be very emotional, a guy who perhaps did not respond very well with being optioned to the minor leagues this spring. The stretch run is a valuable learning experience for any young player, and Archer is no exception. Sending Archer down would be missing an opportunity to show a young player, one that struggles with confidence, that the organization has faith in him. There is the chance that Archer will struggle down the stretch, but I do not have a single doubt in my mind that the vital learning experience with have a positive effect in future seasons.