One of the most overlooked aspects of the Rays success over the past several years has been their depth in the starting rotation. Most of this depth can be attributed to the success of the present and past front offices in drafting and developing quality starting pitching prospects. When a starter has gone down with an injury, the Rays have always had a highly touted arm to turn to in Durham, whether it has been a former top pick like David Price or an underrated prospect in Alex Cobb.
This year, the Rays once again are teeming with starting pitching depth in Triple-A. Jake Odorizzi, Enny Romero, and Alex Colome are all three prominent prospects in the Rays farm system, with all three ranking in our community's top five prospects. Despite the fact that they are all young pitchers close to major league ready, all three have hurdles they need to overcome in order to develop into quality starting pitchers. Below is a glance at what each prospect needs to work on to become a viable pitcher in the Rays rotation.
Of the three pitchers, Odorizzi is the most likely to receive the first call to the majors, as he spent time with the Rays in 2013 and has pitched at the Triple-A level since late in the 2012 season. Oorizzi differs from his two counterparts in that he lacks a plus fastball or an assortment of offspeed weapons. Instead, he relies on a solid four pitch mix (fastball, curveball, slider, and change-up) and good control to get batters out.
The common perception is that the high floor right handed pitcher is entirely major league ready and, while not offering a ton of upside, can easily slide into the rotation and be an effective 3/4 starter. However, if Odorizzi wants to establish himself in the major leagues, there are several things he still needs to work on. While displaying solid control in his stint with the Rays, the young righty's command lagged behind, leading to a high hit rate. For a guy without overpowering stuff, commanding pitches (ie., locating them where intended) is more than just imperative: it's necessary.
One of the less frequently discussed patterns with Odorizzi is the inconsistency of his secondary pitches. Before his first major league start, John Sickels made the following observation: "The quality of Odorizzi's secondary stuff seems to vary from start to start. I've seen a very good change-up out of him, and a very good curve, although not always at the same time."
This is something that Odorizzi displayed both at the major and minor league levels this past season. In his first start, his change-up lagged behind his breaking balls, having been thrown 16 times and inducing only one whiff. Meanwhile, of his nine curveballs thrown, four of them were whiffed at. In his following start in Miami, his change-up excelled (five whiffs) while he failed to generate a whiff with his curveball (though he did drop it in for strikes).
Luckily for Odorizzi, such struggles with inconsistency and command are typical of a young pitcher. Considering his athleticism and repeatable delivery, these are both aspects of the game that it is easy to envision Odorizzi improving on, making his risk of becoming a solid #4 starter on the lower end for a pitcher.
With an assortment of quality pitches and just enough command to make use of them, Colome certainly has the capability of becoming a 2/3 starter. What has hindered Colome's progress recently is a slew of injuries, ranging from a back issue to a sore elbow that sidelined him through the end of this past season. Though reports indicated he would return to the mound before the end of the season, his return never transpired, and no reports on his present condition are available (if you can find one, please link to it in the comments).
The injury concerns for Colome stem from more than just a recent history of injuries, even though he was healthy for his whole career prior to 2012. In his scouting report on the right hander (rated #81 on the 2013 top 100), Keith Law expressed concern that Colome's delivery would prevent a future in the rotation, noting the following:
His delivery isn't ideal for a starter -- he's got a short stride and gets very low on his front side, which probably impacts his command and might be hard to repeat 100 times a game, 33 times a year. He also missed time twice during the year, early on with an oblique strain, later with a lat injury, neither of which is serious but doesn't help make the case that he'll be durable as a starter.
However, what Law followed with explains the allure of Colome as a starter, despite his injury issues. Law wrote, "Given how electric the stuff is, however, I'd rather bet on the possibility he's a high-end starter, even if it's even money that he ends up in the 'pen, because this kind of repertoire in a guy who might be able to throw even 160 innings is so rare."
As we saw in Colome's brief stint in the majors, his electric stuff gives him some of the highest upside in the system. His primary weapon is a mid-90's rising fastball (averaged 94.80 mph in the majors), a pitch that garners plus to plus-plus grades. For the longest time, Colome backed that up with a plus tight curveball around 80 mph, but the usage has ebbed to the point where he did not throw it in a game in the majors or any game of his I observed in the minors this past season. Whether or not its usage was curtailed for developmental reasons or personal preference is up for debate with no clear answer. With his curve ball out of the picture, Colome started throwing a cutter/slider in 2012, a pitch that is now his most promising offspeed weapon. Coming in at the upper-80s, it is capable of sawing bats, though he needs to continue sharpening his consistency and command of the pitch. As we saw in his major league debut, Colome has greatly improved his change-up during the past two years, as it now flashes above average, though the two disclaimers that apply to the cutter also apply to the pitch.
Up until the 2012 season, command and a lack of pitching knowledge greatly hindered Colome's progression and his ability to get the most out of his pitches. However, during the past two years, both have improved greatly, leaving durability as the primary reason to believe his future role is in the bullpen. A cursory glance at his 2012 walk rate (4.2 BB/9) underscores the strides he made in command, progression better reflected by his 2013 3.7 BB/9 (9.6 BB%).
For Colome, the question isn't if he can find success pitching in the major leagues (yes, there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to prospects, but for all intents and purposes, he is a safe bet). He combines tantalizing stuff with enough command and pitchability to survive a major league lineup. The question is just how much the Rays will get out of Colome, both in terms of durability and performance. Will he stay healthy long enough to consistently pitch 180+ innings? Will his command and control improve to the standard of a high end starter? The 2014 season will not definitively answer either of those questions, but it should provide us with a better picture of his ultimate impact.
Of the three pitchers, Enny Romero is the least known and understood entity. The positives are easy to spot on a scouting report: left handed, good size, and impressive stuff. What is less easy to understand is why his stuff has not completely translated into results and whether he can develop from a thrower into a pitcher.
Like Colome, Romero made a name for himself in the low minors, flashing plus stuff and getting the results to back it up. And just like Colome, Romero has failed to build upon the hype from his youth, now being recognized as a tantalizing arm that has failed to live up to his potential. While he has sat just outside of the top 100 for a few years now, he has not seen his stock rise significantly (though it did improve this year).
If you digest Romero's season from a run and hit based perspective, it looks quite good. As a 22 year old in Double-A and Triple-A, he pitched 148.1 innings to the tune of a 2.61 ERA with only 114 hits and 9 home runs allowed. In his one major league start, he allowed no runs and only one hit in 4.2 innings of work. But his one major league start exemplifies the greater issue surrounding Romero; though batters struggled to square him up, he walked four batters without striking a single one out. This issue is consistent in the minor leagues; his 6.8 K/9 and 4.6 BB/9 are both extremely mediocre for a top prospect.
For Romero, the lack of strikeouts, luckily, is not an issue stemming from the quality of his pitches. He works off of a plus to plus-plus fastball that can range from 91-96 or from 93-99 in a given start. Some have made mention in the past that the difference in velocity from start to start comes down to effort. In Bullpen Banter's scouting report, Romero worked in the 91-93 range to start the game. When he became frustrated with his (lack of) command, he hurled a pitch at 99 mph and sat around 95 for the rest of the game. In one of his starts, the Biscuit's television announcer noted that Romero's fastball was at the highest he had seen it (consistently in the upper-90s and hitting triple digits a few times). He also mentioned that several Rays officials happened to be at the game, and suggested a possible correlation. Regardless of exactly how hard his fastball is thrown, it is still a very good pitch. Backing up his fastball is a plus (but inconsistent) curveball that progressed this year after stagnating for a couple of years, and a change-up that flashes average.
Because Romero is the farthest away from his end product of the three, he is the least likely to get the call and would benefit greatly from a year or more in Triple-A. He has been tough to hit in the minors, but major league hitters will take advantage of his inability to command his pitches and his lack of pitchability, especially against left handed hitters.
The Rays have used eight starters in each of the past three years, so it is certainly plausible that, should their health permit, each one of these pitchers will make a start this year. Let's hope they each make strides toward living up to their potential, giving the Rays reliable and exciting options to turn to should one of the present starters go down.