The Rays have the reputation of being a pitching factory. And frankly, they have to be if they're going to compete in a league where John Lester gets promised more than twice their entire expected annual payroll. The Rays can't buy pitchers on the open market so they have to draft them or trade for pitchers who have not yet reached their full potential, and then develop them into frontline starters.
Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, James Shields, Wade Davis, and David Price are all gone, traded for prospects, and there's a new crop of young pitchers in town. The extent to which they succeed will go a long way toward deciding whether or not Matt Silverman's Rays can remain relevant.
How does this young rotation stack up against the rest of the (richer) American League East?
Below is a graph comparing each of the rotations by their Steamer ERA projections.
The Steamer projection system has graded out as the best at predicting pitcher success, and beyond that, it's very cool. Like several others of the high-quality systems, it uses weighted regression (five years of data) on component statistics of pitching, but it goes a step further and factors in fastball velocity -- something usually relegated to the realm of scouting.
The numbers you'll see in the graph do not match what you'll find on FanGraphs, because I've stripped out the park adjustment. Steamer projects pitchers for the numbers they should put up in their home park (or, more precisely, half in their home park, half neutral). The Rays play in a park that favors pitchers, while all of the other teams in the AL East play in hitters' parks. This means that the park-adjusted ERA projections claim that every Rays starter is better than his equivalent on every other AL East team.
That's obviously wrong, as projected results are less important (for a comparison) than projected quality. When Michael Pineda comes to The Trop, he too gets the benefit of the deep power alleys, and when Drew Smyly pitches in New York, he must also contend with lazy fly balls carrying over the short right-field porch.
Therefore, I've adjusted the Steamer projections' output to be appropriate for a neutral park. Now take a look at the ERA each presumed AL East pitcher should be expected to produce under that scenario:
On paper, the Rays' Alex Cobb is the second best pitcher in the American League East.
What Steamer doesn't know about the number ones, though, is that Masahiro Tanaka partially tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow last season.
Tanaka is a pretty great pitcher, and baseball is better with him in it, so I sincerely hope injury doesn't prevent him from replicating his brilliant debut season. Still, I wouldn't bet on it, and neither would Peter Gammons, apparently.
If Tanaka isn't fully healthy, the only legit no. 1,starter in the AL East is Alex Cobb— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) December 11, 2014
As far as number two starters go, Steamer expects Drew Smyly to be the division's best over Michael Pineda by a healthy margin.
Much as we like Chris Archer around here, and even though he may still have room for improvement (particularly if he can further develop the changeup he played with occasionally last season), Steamer thinks he's a weak link in the Rays rotation. He's the Rays' third best pitcher right now, but his projection is lower than the third best pitcher on any of the other AL East teams.
The same goes for Jake Odorizzi (although the projections of his peers have a bit less certainty). Some think he can improve on last season, while others think he may have already reached his peak. Steamer thinks he's comparable to other number four starters, but certainly not better. Ivan Nova and Clay Buchholz are probably a step above if healthy, although like Tanaka, both will be attempting to come back from injuries. Steamer doesn't know that so discount them how you prefer.
The Rays do have an advantage with the fifth spot, perhaps. The projection listed above is for Matt Moore, who will be returning from Tommy John surgery, hopefully by June. Players often recover well from Tommy John, and if Moore can approach his former level of play, he's nothing like your run-of-the-mill number five. His upside is "best pitcher in baseball." His downside is "not in baseball."
Let's take a closer look at each rotation. All numbers are from Steamer, except "Career GB%." Regular ERA is in their presumed home park, and pnERA (pronounced Panera) is in a neutral park.
Okay, so the thing that jumps off the page about this staff is strikeouts. Every single pitcher has a strikeout rate over 20%. This is why the staff surpassed the previous season strikeout record in 2014 (while finishing second to Cleveland's staff). It's also a rotation that, Cobb aside, is flyball heavy. That can be a good thing, especially with a large outfield patrolled by defensive aces like Desmond Jennings and Kevin Kiermaier behind them.
Games missed by Matt Moore will be pitched by Nathan Karns and/or Alex Colome, two exciting prospects who need to improve their command to be good major league pitchers.
I've already discussed Tanaka. He's really good, but his elbow may prevent him from replicating his 2014 success. Speaking of injuries, Michael Pineda returned last season, and pitched like his old, pre-injury self, meaning that the Yankees may in fact end up getting the better return from the the Pineda-Montero trade.
If you believe that extreme HR/FB rates will normalize, then C.C. Sabathia is not done, despite the ugly 5.28 ERA and 4.78 FIP.
Ivan Nova and David Phelps are better pitchers than people think, but let's be real here. There's a strong possibility that someone like Max Scherzer (or James Shields?) coasts into town and bumps everyone down a slot.
Once upon a time, Alex Cobb was the most underrated pitcher in baseball, I think that time is past, with several national writers predicting him to with the Cy Young last season and Peter Gammons hyping him on twitter. The new must underrated guy nationally? Marcus Stroman. Dude's really good, and he's only 24. Stroman is essentially the northern version of Yu Darvish, meaning he can do anything to a baseball.
That's at least six pitches, and they're all very distinct.
Don't sleep on Drew Hutchison, either. He will also be 24 this upcoming season, meaning that the Jays have a lot to look forward to for the next few years.
The Red Sox have radically revamped their rotation, and the thrust is clear -- they are going to make you hit the ball on the ground. That makes some sense, as they play in a toy ballpark where routine fly balls turn into doubles. It also makes sense if they think Xander Bogaerts is an elite defensive shortstop. UZR didn't think so. We'll see.
Steamer predicts a bounceback season for righty-killer Justin Masterson. We'll see.
If any team needs to buy an ace, it's the Orioles. Chen and Norris, the two pitchers Baltimore bought rather than developed, are decent enough, and there's a chance Tillman puts everything together and becomes one of the best pitchers in baseball, and Gausman is young. If those two can flip the standings and move into the territory of a #1 and a #2, this will look much prettier for Baltimore fans, but right now, it's depressing.
On the other hand, Dylan Bundy is coming, so maybe we don't need to feel bad for them.
So there you have it. This generation of Rays pitching doesn't quite stand up to the "best rotation in baseball" quintet of 2012, but you could still argue that they're the best in the division right now. That's an impressive accomplishment for a team completely unable to buy good pitching on the free agent market, or to retain long term the pitching they do manage to develop. It's a rotation that should enable the Rays to make a legitimate run for the playoffs in 2015 if they're able to squeeze a bit more offense out of their lineup.