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Rays top prospects of all-time: No. 2

After 20 years of Rays baseball, we’re counting down the top prospects in franchise history.

Rays v Rangers Game 1 ALDS
After his first postseason start, it appeared Matt Moore was on his way to being one of the league’s best pitchers
Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

Prior to the 2012 season, there was a trio of prospects in contention to be ranked No. 1 in baseball. There were outfielders Bryce Harper and Mike Trout plus this left-handed pitcher for the Rays.

20. SS Reid Brignac
19. RHP Matt White
18. RHP Chris Archer
17. RHP Wade Davis/LHP Jake McGee
16. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
15. 1B/LHP Brendan McKay
14. SS Tim Beckham
13. RHP Brent Honeywell
12. SS Willy Adames
11. OF Desmond Jennings
10. LHP Blake Snell
9. OF Wil Myers
8. LHP Scott Kazmir
7. 3B Evan Longoria
6. OF Rocco Baldelli
5. IF/OF Melvin Upton Jr.
4. OF Delmon Young
3. LHP David Price

2. LHP Matt Moore

Acquired: No. 245 pick by Devil Rays (2007)

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 2 (2011), 15 (2010), 35 (2009)
Rays Top-30 ranks: 1 (2011), 2 (2010), 4 (2009), 6 (2008)
League Top-20 ranks: 1 (2010 Florida State League), 1 (2011 Southern League), 1 (2011 International League), 3 (2008 Appalachian League), 3 (2009 South Atlantic League)

Rays best tools: Best curveball (2009, 2010, 2011), Best fastball (2010, 2011), Best control (2011)
League best tools: Best pitching prospect (2010 Florida State League, 2011 Southern League), Best breaking pitch (2010 Florida State League), Best fastball (2011 Southern League)

Baseball America had Moore ranked between Harper and Trout. This MLB.com list had him third. Keith Law had him third as well (ESPN, $). At Baseball Prospectus, he led the way.

Moore was an absolute force in 2011. In 155 innings between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham, he struck out 210 batters, walked 46, and only allowed 101 hits. It was the second straight season he struck out 200-plus batters. His ERA was just 1.92. He threw a no-hitter, and he had an impressive showing in the Futures Game, even touching 100 mph.

He actually didn’t lead the minors in strikeouts that season like he did in each of the prior two. Colorado’s Edwar Cabrera did. Cabrera did get a cup of coffee in the majors, but his stuff certainly didn’t match the stats. Moore’s did. With no effort, he sat in the mid-90s. His curveball was a plus-plus pitch too. During his big 2011 season, his changeup developed into a plus pitch, and he continued throwing more strikes. He was a future ace.

That wasn’t always the case. His pre-draft report at BA ($) in 2007 reads quite differently than his report when he was the No. 2 prospect in baseball. As an amateur in New Mexico, he showed “above-average fastball velocity for a left-hander” and needed to “add polish to his curveball and changeup.” That is so generic and nondescript that it could apply to dozens of high school pitchers in every draft. In his pro debut, he struck out 29 batters and walked 16 in 2013 innings in the Appalachian League.

Moore went back to the Appy League in 2008, and he started to distinguish himself from the standard-issue high school pitcher. In 5413 innings, he struck out 77 and walked just 19 with a 1.66 ERA. After not ranking in the team’s top 30 after his pro debut, he rocketed up to sixth after his first full season. His velocity increased, and the quality of his secondary offerings improved.

In 2009, he made his full-season debut with Bowling Green, which was still in the South Atlantic League after relocating from Columbus, Ga. His walk rate shot up again, but the enormous potential he possessed was evident. He again led the way in strikeouts per nine innings, punching out 176 in 123 innings. That performance earned him a spot on BA’s top 100 for the first time.

As the 2009 season progressed, Moore’s control improved. That improvement didn’t immediately carry over to the 2010 season with Charlotte. In his first 11 starts, he lasted just 5413 innings, posting a 6.63 ERA with 34 walks. Then something clicked. Over his final 15 starts, he walked just 27 batters in 9013 innings. He struck out 134, and batters had just a .481 OPS against him.

This time, the improvements did carry over into his breakout 2011. After his 27 outstanding starts in the minors, Moore made his major league debut out of the bullpen on Sept. 14 against Baltimore. He didn’t pitch great, but in his first start eight days later at Yankee Stadium, he did. He struck out 11 batters in five scoreless innings and walked just one.

His second start in the majors came with even higher stakes — he was chosen to start Game 1 of the ALDS in Texas. The Rays won 9-0, and Moore was impressive. He struck out six and walked two in seven innings. Maybe the shadows in the stadium helped, but I’m more inclined to believe he had success because of his great talent.

That offseason, he agreed to a five-year, $14 million contract with the Rays. Like the agreement with Evan Longoria three seasons earlier, it ensured that the team would be able to keep a top talent.

As a 23 year old in 2012, Moore was good, but he was inconsistent, which isn’t a surprise given his usual adjustment period at the start of each season. In his first 10 starts, he had a 4.76 ERA, and batters had a .766 OPS against him. For the rest of the season, his ERA was just 3.36. He threw more strikes and reduced his walk rate.

His ERA improved from 3.81 in 2012 to 3.29 in 2013, although his strikeout and walk rates were largely unchanged. Still, he was good enough to be named to the American League All-Star team in New York. He retired all three batters he faced.

However, his career would soon never be the same. He missed August that season with an elbow injury, and after returning in September, he walked 20 batters in 29 innings. After two starts in 2014, he underwent Tommy John surgery.

Moore returned in 2015 and struggled, like most pitchers coming back from serious elbow surgery do. He had a 5.43 ERA, and he was unable to put batters away the way he used to, striking out just 16.6 percent of batters.

In 2016, he was back to at the very least, being roughly a league-average pitcher. He maintained an improved walk rate, and his strikeout rate went up to 21.2 percent. Still, the Rays decided to trade him to the Giants for Matt Duffy and prospects Lucius Fox and Michael Santos. With San Francisco, he had some great highlights that season. On Aug. 25, he took a no-hitter into the ninth against the Dodgers. In the NLDS against the Cubs, he struck out 10 and only allowed two runs in eight innings.

His 2017 season was poor. His strikeout rate dipped back below 20 percent again, and he ended up leading the league in earned runs allowed and losses. He allowed 200 hits in 17413 innings. The Giants picked up his option, but they traded him to the Rangers.

Moore could still pitch better in 2018 in his third organization. He’ll only be 29 years old for much of the season, but for the Rays, it must be frustrating to wonder what his career would have been like had he not gotten injured. He was an All-Star at 24. His fastball velocity wasn’t quite the same, but his stuff was still really good. He showed he was able to improve his walk rate. Maybe he could have put it all together and become one of the league’s best, like everyone thought he would after the 2011 season.