I believe that by the end of the off season, the Rays rotation will be as follows: Price, Moore, Hellickson, Cobb, and Niemann.
While Shields is a very important part of the rotation and replacing his innings will be an issue, his stock is high and it is hard to see a scenario in which the Rays decide to keep him. The only one I can really fathom is if we decide to move Price (or maybe Hellickson) instead.
It just does not seem likely that the Rays will move Price. Any asking price for him would have to be other-worldly, and the only two teams that really make sense are the Rangers and the Royals. However, trading Price is an option theRays should and undoubtedly will look into. His price is escalating and the Rays should be able to nab some elite prospects and/or a young affordable bat. Any reasonable offer would be tempting from the Rays standpoint.
Moore, Cobb, and Archer are all destined to return to the Rays. Archer, with an option remaining provides useful depth at AAA for when Niemann hits the disabled list. Improvements are expected from both Cobb and Moore.
The Rays, if they feel he is not worthy of a roster spot, could move Niemann. However, with his recent injuries, his stock is at an all-time low. It is a pity Niemann can't stay healthy, because he has developed into a strong starting pitcher when on the mound. A team needing pitching would be wise to see if they could pry Niemann away from the Rays for minimal return.
As far as the whole Davis fiasco goes, I am not sure of what to make of it. I truly believe he can be a competent 3/4 starter, assuming his stuff holds up in the rotation. The addition of the cutter gives him a third weapon, behind his fastball and curve. I am not sure of the point behind Friedman's comments when he stated: "it's a hard thing to go back and ask him to do it again being that his heart is in the rotation." I just cannot envision a likely scenario in which Davis could rejoin the rotation. If another team places considerable value in him, he could be traded. If not, a return to the bullpen would not be a bad situation.
The price tag on David Price is an influencing factor. If arbitration gives him more than a 200% salary increase (~$9M) then Price's days may be numbered - however, I believe that won't be the case.
As others have pointed out, the likely outcome for Archer is serving as depth at AAA, with Niemann slotted as the fifth pitcher. The likely midsession injury to any pitcher - but especially The Big NyQuil - will bring Archer into the fold.
If any pitcher's future is certain, it is Moore's and Davis's, with Moore being (team friendly contract) in the rotation and Davis in the bullpen to keep his velocity up. The only reason to trade Davis would be his contract. He is owed $2.8/$4.8 the next two years, with options for $7/$8/$10 the next three years. There is no need to move him while his contract is still under three mil.
By that logic, we are left with Hellickson and Shields. Hell Boy has been playing with fire, beating his FIP with an incredibly low ERA despite questionable peripherals, and it is for these reasons Bryan Grosnick of SBN Tampa Bay and Beyond The Boxscore says Hellickson is the best choice. So the most important question to me is whether Hellickson is riding on luck or talent? If it's the former, we should flip Hellickson like he's Scott Kazmir pronto. Perhaps it is the Rays defense that has held his BABIP over the last three years to .267/.233/.261 and his Left on Base % to .800/.820/.827, but I'm afraid Hellickson is a ticking time bomb.
Shields is our war horse. I firmly believe the Rays will be in contention yet again next year, so trading a 5.0 WAR pitcher like Shields bothers me greatly. He's priced at $9/$12 over the next two seasons, so his value may never be higher than it is now. Do the Rays have the money to shell out for Shields and Price? Has Shields hit his ceiling in potential? It is here I say in Friedman we trust. If a team like the Cardinals wants to throw Matt Carpenter our way, how could the Rays say no? I've narrowed it down to Shields and Hellickson. The rest is on the market to decide.
We're trying to win the World Series, not the service time championship, the WAR/$ trophy, or any other hallowed but secondary award. With that in mind, I think there are two types of scarcity a GM must work against. Of course there's scarcity of money, which some say could force the Rays to trade David Price or James Shields, but there's also scarcity of dependably 4+ WAR pitchers, or any type of 4+ WAR player. There are just not that many truly excellent players in the world, and it's that scarcity that creates some semblance of parity in a capless league.
Now in theory, Andrew Friedman should be able to trade for equal value, but it's not quite that simple. Top players with relatively low risk are the type of piece that teams build around, not trade away, and teams usually overvalue their own studs (with good reason, as far as the rooting fan is concerned). If the equal value is made up of prospects, that's trading low risk value for high risk value, and might mean punting the season. The window is too good right now to do that. This is a long way of saying I expect both Shields and Price to be back next year.
Now let's move on to our "depth."
Matt Moore has a team friendly contact and the potential to become the best pitcher in baseball. He's not going anywhere.
Jeremy Hellickson is either overrated or underrated, depending on who you ask. Its my opinion that he's both skillful and lucky, with plenty of room to grow that will improve his peripherals. He could become a true top pitcher, rather than a flashpoint for debate. That being said, as has been noted by others, Hellickson appears unlikely to sign an extension, and the fact that there is room for variation in how teams value him makes him more likely to be traded. If AF believes a I do, though, that Helly hasn't yet unlocked his potential, the Rays will not sell low.
Jeff Niemann is an interesting case. Long considered an innings eater who doesn't eat innings, he's showed flashes recently of being much more than that. Unfortunately, a freak injury derailed his season before he reached a large enough sample to establish a mid-3 SIERA as his new level of play. If the breakout was real, trading now would be selling low.
I love Chris Archer as much as the next guy. I love his slider. I love his fastball. I love his rookie season. I love that he seems like a thinker. What I don't love is the fact that he put up better strikeout and walk numbers in the pros than he did at AAA. That's not supposed to happen, and yes, I know that top prospects can improve as they age, regardless of level. But it's a major red flag. We should be happy to have Archer. We should not expect him to sustain that type MLB level of performance over a full season.
Alex Cobb is great as a mid-rotation arm. He pounds the zone with his three pitches, and he's put up a large enough track record of success that his poor fastball no longer worries me. What his fastball does do, though, is make him unsexy as trade bait. The Rays will pitch him, and do so happily, but I very much doubt he'd bring back the type of value that would make him worth trading.
Lastly, there's Wade Davis. He has a fantastic contract for a starting pitcher, and an acceptable contract for a bullpen ace. He became said bullpen ace this past year, but I'm not buying that he should be moved back into the rotation. Any sentence that starts "If he can maintain his stuff as a starter . . ." is wishful thinking. Stuff markedly and measureable improves when someone only has to throw one or two innings. The cutter may be new and may travel, but the fastball velocity won't. If another team thinks Davis can be an above average starter, let them trade for him, but if the Rays move him back into the rotation, it's not a World Series play.
So where does that leave the Rays? Two studs who I think will be back next year (Price and Shields), one young pitcher brimming with potential who will definitely be back (Moore). One very good young pitcher who probably can't be traded for fair value (Cobb), and one very good young pitcher who might be tradeable above his value (Hellickson). If any of them are traded, that leaves our depth as a promising rookie with control problems that we shouldn't believe have just disappeared (Archer), and one veteran in the bullpen that we shouldn't believe can magically transition back into a better starter than he's been before (Davis). Yes, our rotation is a position of strength, but a trade here, an injury there, a few very possible struggles, and it can become an area of weakness. That's why I wouldn't be at all surprised to have every single one of the Tampa Bay starting pitchers back next season.
Do you see another potential resolution to the (good) problem we always seem to have? If so, please share it in the comments!