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Cut, Keep, or Trade: Jake Odorizzi, the suddenly expensive middle of the rotation starter

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MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Rays starter Jake Odorizzi will be going on his second trip through salary arbitration next season, with an expected raise to $6.5MM by Matt Swartz’s model at MLBTradeRumors.com. This is generally the time when the Rays have chosen to move pitchers, so it’s time to play a new offseason game we are calling Cut, Keep, or Trade.

And as we embark on considering which players should be cut, kept, or traded, it’s easy to start with the most expensive arm in the Rays rotation, so let’s get after it.

Would the Rays cut Odorizzi?

Coming into the season Jake Odorizzi had put up back to back seasons of good results with 3.6 and 3.8 RA9 WAR, 3.0 and 3.6 bWAR. The peripherals weren’t as kind to him with a Fangraphs FIP based WAR putting him at 2.9 and 2.0 fWAR. So at worst you could see him as a guy who put up solid average innings to being well above average.

Overall the 2017 season was a disappointing one for Jake Odorizzi. His ERA jumped to 4.14 and his FIP sky rocketed to 5.43. It graded out at 1.1 RA9 WAR, 0.1 fWAR, and -0.1 bWAR.

Odorizzi struggled staying healthy, and though he managed to make 28 starts, he put up only 143.1 innings. This included two starts that he left after one inning due to injury. His walk rate spiked up to 10.1% after posting a 7.2% rate over his three previous seasons with the Rays. The homers were up to 15.2% FB/HR rate while also posting a career high 47.3% fly ball rate.

Not all was bad though.

Odorizzi’s strikeout rate stayed constant at 21.0%, and his 11.2% whiff rate was a career best. His previous career high was 10.1% in 2015. Odorizzi also finished the season with his best work. In the month of September he put up a 1.03 ERA (2.73 RA9) and 2.89 FIP. In his five starts he struck out 30 (30.9%) and walked 9 (9.3%) in 26.1 innings to close the season.

There are enough things to like that the Rays could feasibly hold onto the veteran starter or trade Odorizzi for value.

Why the Rays could keep Odorizzi

Jake Odorizzi was a very productive pitcher his first three years in a Rays uniform. In 96 starts between 2014-16 Odorizzi put up a 3.73 ERA (96 ERA-) and 3.91 FIP (99 FIP-) over 554.2 innings. League average starting pitchers put up a 103 ERA- and 103 FIP- over that time period. Odorizzi was worth 7.0 fWAR, 9.1 RA9 WAR, and 7.8 bWAR.

It’s not difficult to envision Odorizzi being a 2-3 WAR pitcher with his walk rate returning to his previous norms. It’s hard to envision that not being one of the five best starters next year.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

With or without Odorizzi, the Rays rotation next year will be young and inexperienced. The one thing that ace Chris Archer has excelled at is throwing innings. He has three straight seasons of throwing 200+ innings in the majors and his 614.1 innings ranks fifth in the majors during that time frame.

Somebody else will have to throw innings with him, and Nathan Eovaldi is the only pitcher who has thrown at least 163.1 innings in a professional season besides Archer and Odorizzi. However Eovaldi will be returning from Tommy John Surgery, so relying on him for bulk innings probably shouldn’t be Plan A.

Jake Odorizzi’s Trade Value

As has become tradition, the Rays will be looking to trade a starting pitcher with a couple of years of team control this offseason for controllable assets.

The good news is that the Rays have enough starting pitching depth available in Durham that it makes sense to move Odorizzi for a solid return while being able to reallocate almost $6MM of salary elsewhere.

A trade of Odorizzi seems likely given his salary, and one doesn’t have to go far to find a recent comparable for Jake Odorizzi.

Last winter the Rays traded Drew Smyly to the Seattle Mariners. Smyly was coming off one of his healthiest seasons posting a 4.88 ERA and 4.49 FIP in 175.1 innings. His 2016 season was worth 0.5 RA9 WAR, 2.0 fWAR, and 0.0 bWAR.

Drew Smyly had two years of arbitration remaining and agreed to a $6.85MM deal that is just above Odorizzi’s projected rate. Odorizzi also has two years of team control remaining.

While Smyly was coming off a healthier year he reportedly had a partial labrum tear that caused him to miss a majority of the 2015 season. At the time of the Smyly trade and Odorizzi’s potential trade, the two are very similar. Both fly ball pitchers, both with two years of control, and both about to make very similar amounts.

For Smyly, the Rays received OF Mallex Smith, LHP Ryan Yarbrough, and SS/3B Carlos Vargas. Mallex Smith was coming off a solid rookie year with the Atlanta Braves and was traded earlier that day for LHP Luiz Gohara with lottery tickets going each way. Luis Gohara was a borderline Top 100 prospect that has since been ranked in the 2017 Baseball America mid-season Top 100 at #76 and #82 in the current MLB.com Top 100.

If the Rays are looking strictly at a prospect return they could reasonably expect to get a headliner that is at the back of the season Top 100 to just off lists. In addition to the headliner they can get two solid prospects that the quality will depend on how good the first piece is. Or they could look to gain a solid MLB role player like they did last season in choosing to acquire Mallex Smith instead of Luiz Gohara.

Teams in homer prone ballparks will likely be cautious as Odorizzi won’t be able to bring Tropicana Field or the Rays fantastic outfield defense with him. There is always a shortage of pitching, so the Rays should be able to find a trade partner with a need for starting pitchers.