To hear the front office tell it, the Rays had unending discussions on just about every major league caliber starter, and never worked harder at the Winter Meetings. With a bevy of young pitchers, at least one of them could be traded, and Tampa could certainly choose to move even more than one of their young starters should teams come calling.
If so the Rays may want to bring an outside influence in, perhaps an influx of veterans to provide some guidance on the pitching staff. The average age of their projected 2017 rotation is slightly above 26 with 28 year-old Chris Archer leading the pack as the grizzled "veteran".
With the market for quality starters not nearly as deep as prior years, they could capitalize on desperate teams willing to part with a strong package of prospects. Dealing those starters could open up at least one rotation spot for a veteran looking to bounce back after a down or lost season.
The value for Tampa would be in having a veteran clubhouse presence on the staff and arguably more importantly, a potential trade chip down the road. With that in mind, there are a few starters Tampa could consider on a short-term affordable deal for a veteran looking to rebuild their value.
Peavy had, unquestionably, the worst year of his career this season and finished with a demotion to the bullpen in San Francisco. He posted a career-high in ERA, WHIP, hits per nine innings, and home runs per nine innings. Hitters batted .278 against him and a scorching .320 on balls in play.
Yet despite the massive decline in production, he could see a return to some normality in 2017. Prior to the 2016 season, Peavy hadn’t posted an ERA above 4.17 since 2011 and posted a 3.58 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 2015 through 110 innings. He held hitters to a .235 average and left almost 75 percent of base runners on base, nearly nine percent better than his 2016 production.
There is some indication that he could return to that level of play. His 7.74 strikeouts per nine innings was actually better than his 2015 season and his 6.9 percent walk rate was slightly under his career average. The notable change Peavy will have to make is limiting the number of home runs he allows. His fly ball to home run rate was his worst since his second season in the league and he’ll need to keep the ball in the park to improve his odds for a turnaround season. More importantly, however, is that he’ll be another season removed from finding out that he was scammed out of over $16 million on the first say of spring training. Peavy, himself, admitted to the Mercury News that "the potential loss of millions distracted him at times on the field."
With that discovery further behind him, he could focus on getting his career back on track. At 35, he may be amenable to a one-year contract or two-year contract with the second year being a mutual option year with some guaranteed money. If he could fully focus on baseball, the Roberto Clemente Award nominee could be a solid veteran addition at an affordable price.
Wilson underwent shoulder surgery on his labrum and rotator cuff in 2016 and hasn’t pitched since the 2015 season which ended with elbow surgery. The injury concerns can not be overlooked, but neither can Wilson’s steady production during the majority of his career.
The crafty veteran has proven to be a model of consistency by season’s end, despite bumps in the road during almost every season as a starter. His strikeout percentage always seems to settle around 20 percent; his batting average against usually rests in the .230s; and he leaves 72 to 74 percent of men on base. His 2015 season, although cut short, gives some hope that he still has enough in his arsenal to be a back end of the rotation starter, finishing with a surprising 1.24 WHIP (his best since 2011) and left 73.8 percent of base-runners stranded. Considering the fact that he finished the 2015 season with a better fielder independent pitching than starter Jake Odorizzi did in 2016 (4.02 v. 4.31), Wilson could still potentially provide a boost despite his inability to blow pitches by hitters at a high rate.
There are certainly negatives aside from his injury that need to be addressed and at 36 his velocity will likely continue to be a concern for a pitcher who has never been a flamethrower in the past. His strikeout to walk ratio hasn’t risen above 2.40 over the past four years and his ground ball percentage was the lowest of his career (43.1 percent). For a pitcher that relies on generating grounders for outs, he’ll need to keep the ball down in order to be a productive member of an MLB rotation.
If Wilson recovers well from his shoulder surgery, he could be an affordable addition on a one-year prove it contract.
Even if he posts numbers similar to his 2015 season, his value will be in helping Tampa’s young staff develop. Wilson is a control pitcher who dictates his pitching style based on the hitter. He generates a lot of movement on the ball utilizing different arm angles and grips. He’s a self-proclaimed student of the game, saying in an interview with Fangraphs "I talk to my catchers every day. We talk about hitters. The way my memory works, I’m very good at analyzing hitters. I pitch to weak points." That type of mindset could only aid Tampa’s young rotation.
It wasn’t that long ago that Niese was traded to Pittsburgh in an exchange which landed the Mets second baseman Neil Walker, a deal in which the Mets certainly came out on top. Walker helped lead New York into the playoffs, while Niese was eventually traded back to New York and soon thereafter underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus on his left knee.
Niese’s time as a starter in Pittsburgh was something to be forgotten. The left-hander posted a 5.13 ERA, 1.57 WHIP and .880 OPS against, led the National League in wild pitches, and gave up 20 home runs, before being demoted to the bullpen. He ended the season with a career-worst 5.50 ERA and 1.59 WHIP and a negative WAR (wins above replacement level), making him a detriment to his teams in 2016.
Yet, there are a lot of positives to consider when looking at Niese as a potential addition. At 29, he’s played nine major leagues seasons and prior to 2016 posted a 61-61 record and 3.91 ERA. He posted a sub-3.75 ERA three of his last four seasons and a sub-3.80 fielder independent pitching in four out of his five seasons in New York; and he is only one season removed from pitching 176 innings and yielding the best ground ball rate of his career (54.5 percent).
Niese’s numbers are actually somewhat similar to his previous season, with a slightly worse walk rate, a better strikeout rate, and better left-on-base percentage. The major difference is the amount of home runs Niese yielded. He gave up a career 25 home runs in only 120 innings, good for a 1.86 home runs per nine innings. For comparison, he only yielded 1.02 home runs per nine innings in 2015 and hadn’t allowed worse than 1.04 home runs per nine since his first stint in the majors.
With a home run to fly ball ratio at a career-worst 22.1 percent, Niese will need to improve mightily. With his ground ball rate at a solid 51.1 percent, his improvement will need to be on his command and location in order to return to his prior success.
If Tampa’s pitching staff believes they can help him command his pitches better and mix in his off-speed pitches with an underwhelming fastball, he could be an option on a one-year deal. The fact that New York was able to turn him into Neil Walker last offseason exemplifies what type of value a team can get back for a veteran with an affordable contract.
This is something the Rays should strongly consider. If the front office does decide to trade one of its starters and not promote from within, the veteran route could be their best move as they continue to develop their staff and foster a winning culture. With top pitching prospect Brent Honeywell not far off from joining the rotation, a placeholder and mid-season trade asset may benefit Tampa in multiple ways.