The Winter Meetings are right around the corner, and that means that the Tampa Bay Rays will be in heavy trade discussions over the next couple of weeks. Many potential deals will be talked about, but one thing is for sure:
The Rays should not give up any more of their big-league pitching depth, despite indications otherwise.
As Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times noted last week, it is possible that the Rays will look to deal from their stock of starting pitching, despite the fact that they already dealt Nate Karns earlier in the off-season. Dealing Karns could look like a vote of confidence in the depth the Rays already have, but is it strong enough to withstand more losses? Here's how Topkin quotes President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman:
"We're having conversations out of a position of strength given the pitching depth that we have and look forward to seeing how the rest of the offseason unfolds."
What position of strength? Last season serves as a cautionary tale of how important pitching depth can be.
Entering 2015, the club expected to see a rotation of Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and either Alex Colome or Nate Karns, with Matt Moore factoring in at some point. The club also added Matt Andriese and Burch Smith to that group as depth, giving them a solid foundation of eight capable pitchers at the start of the season and nine when Moore returned.
However, that positive outlook quickly turned sour as Smyly, Colome, Cobb and Smith joined Moore on the DL before the season even started. The Rays were forced to deal for Erasmo Ramirez to make up for these losses, and the club opened the season with a rotation of Archer, Odorizzi, Karns, Ramirez and Andriese.
From that point on, the rotation never completely regained its health. Cobb joined Smith in undergoing Tommy John surgery, Smyly dealt with a labrum tear that limited him to 12 starts, Odorizzi missed time with an oblique injury and Moore was demoted to Triple-A after initial struggles in his return from Tommy John. In their stead, Karns spent almost the whole year in the rotation, making 26 starts with a quick hook, while Colome joined for 13 starts and Andriese made eight.
Thanks to their depth and the savvy acquisition of Ramirez, the club still managed to post the sixth-best rotation ERA in baseball at 3.63. Had they traded from their original pitching depth, that might not have been the case, and we could have even seen the likes of minor league invites Scott Diamond, Matt Buschmann or Everett Teaford starting games for the club. Yikes.
As of right now, the Rays starting depth looks something like this:
Even without dealing a pitcher, there are plenty of questions in the majorl eauge rotation.
Will Drew Smyly be able to stay healthy over a full season given that his previous career high in innings pitched is 150.3 and that he is pitching with a torn labrum? Can Matt Moore return to form after posting a 5.43 ERA in 12 starts in his first action since Tommy John? Will Erasmo Ramirez keep up the improvements he made in 2015? Will Jake Odorizzi finally be the 180-to-200-inning workhorse many thought he would be?
This rotation has the chance to be great, but there is plenty of risk, and dealing from the well of starters would only make things worse if injuries or poor performance occurs.
On top of that, dealing one of the current five slated to be in the rotation would only create problems.
Colome was underwhelming in his 13 starts, posting a 4.70 ERA and 15 percent strikeout rate before becoming a weapon out of the bullpen, where he had a 2.66 ERA and 27 percent strikeout rate. As a versatile bullpen piece who can throw multiple innings one outing and pitch in the late innings the next, putting Colome back in the rotation is hardly ideal.
Snell would also be an option to join the rotation if someone was dealt, but he too would not be ideal, at least to start the season. He dominated the minors last year, but you have to consider that he has made just 21 starts above A-ball and 9 starts at Triple-A. Snell needs more experience learning how to get outs against experienced Triple-A hitters, and while his 3.6 BB/9 last year was an improvement over his 4.5 career mark, he could still stand to hone in his control. But even if his stuff was ready, a quick promotion starts his rookie contract a year sooner than the franchise would prefer.
Going further down the list, we find a handful of capable spot starters, but not much more. Andriese is a nice piece to have around, but fits better as a swing-man than as Triple-A depth. Floro has a nice track record but hit a wall in his first go at Triple-A last year and may not ever have the stuff to consistently get big league hitters out. Cobb and Whitley both could factor in at some point, but as we saw with Moore, the transition back from Tommy John is not always easy. Whitley is also fairly new to starting and has just 95 big league innings to his name.
It may not be too long before the Rays have enough big-league pitching depth to once again deal from. Along with their current group of controllable starters, prospects like Taylor Guerrieri, Jacob Faria, Ryne Stanek and even Austin Pruitt all have at least a chance of factoring in to the big-league plans soon with guys like Brent Honewell, German Marquez and Chih-Wei Hu not far behind.
The low minors might be stacked, but as it stands, the Rays starting depth at the big-league level already does not look overwhelmingly strong.
Given how expensive pitching has become on the open market (J.A. Happ, who is normally bad, got 3 years, $36M) it's understandable that the Rays could likely get a excellent return for some decent starting pieces, but not if they want to compete in 2016.
Last season taught us just how key having an abundance of starters can be in the event of a disaster, and the club needs to ensure that was a lesson learned and hold on to their depth for the time being.