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The Future Arms Race: Previewing the Rays injured starting pitchers

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Despite a setback in 2018, the Rays’ young arms are looking to come back stronger

MLB: All Star Game-Futures Game Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

About this time last year, many Rays fans were excited about the slew of top young arms coming up through the system.

Jose De Leon made his MLB debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, and was the centerpiece of the Logan Forsythe trade. Anthony Banda was the main piece in the Steven Souza Jr. trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks. And of course, Brent Honeywell (Jr.) was making his way through the Rays’ system, finishing as an MVP in 2017’s Future All Stars game, and being invited to 2018 Spring Training.

With only Chris Archer, and Blake Snell as true locks for the rotation, it seemed there were a lot of spots up for grabs Then, the darkest timeline happened.

February 28th, 2018 - Brent Honeywell Undergoes Tommy John Surgery

While throwing a batting practice session in his first Spring Training invitation. Brent Honeywell felt a pain in his elbow, and underwent Tommy John Surgery shortly thereafter.

March 8th, 2018 - Jose De Leon Undergoes Tommy John Surgery

A week later, the Rays get more bad news and another star prospect goes down to Tommy John Surgery.

Then once the season started, Anthony Banda was able to help for a bit, but eventually succumbed to Tommy John Surgery in June. The Rays had lost 3 potential starters for at least 14 months in a half season.

As a result, the Rays were forced to adopt the infamous Opener, and performed much better than expectations, going 90-72 in 2018. Now with help on the way, could the Rays do even better?

Brent Honeywell Jr.

ETA: June 2019

Projections:

Honeywell Projections

Innings ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 WAR
Innings ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 WAR
74.0 4.11 1.27 8.96 2.26 0.9
93.3 3.86 1.29 7.91 2.51 1.5
Steamer/ZiPS Projections

FanGraphs’ Steamer and ZiPS both have pretty solid projections for Honeywell, with ZiPS projecting more innings and a slightly higher WAR. ERA leaves something to be desired, but it is wise to temper expectations as Honeywell adapts to MLB hitting.

Here’s what Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel & Eric Longenhagen have to say about Honeywell heading into 2019:

A creative sequencer, Honeywell’s deep, unique repertoire is unlike any other pitcher in the minors. Though his fastball touches 98, his stuff is so diverse that he never has to pitch off of it. He can lob his curveball in for strikes, induce weak contact early in counts by throwing a cutter when hitters are sitting fastball, and he’ll double and triple up on the changeup.

Juan Toribio of MLB.com thinks the Rays would slowly introduce Honeywell to the MLB hitters, possibly coming in after an opener and pitch 2-3 innings and build from there.

Jose De Leon

ETA: July 2019

Projections:

JDL Projections

Innings ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 WAR
Innings ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 WAR
46.0 4.4 1.32 8.92 3.47 0.4
66.3 4.75 1.37 9.36 3.39 0.3

Besides innings pitched, Steamer and ZiPS are pretty similar for JDL in projections, with a higher ERA and walk rate, probably due to his rough big league debut (6.00+ ERA in 17 IP) with the Dodgers in 2017. The walk rate is a little worrisome, with JDL not posting anything lower than 8.8% since 2016.

In the same podcast, Juan Toribio believes JDL will be in the bullpen when he comes up for the Rays, both to limit innings, and to slowly bring the once-top heralded prospect back to form.

Side note: the Rays traded for JDL in January 2017 (!!), and has only pitched in 2.2 innings at the MLB level with the Rays since being acquired.

Anthony Banda

ETA: Late 2019/Early 2020

Banda went down halfway through the 2018 season, after posting a 3.68 ERA in 16 IP for the Rays. Here’s where the projections have him post-rehabilitation:

Banda Projections

IP ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 WAR
IP ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 WAR
1.0 3.70 1.27 9.60 1.84 0.2
112.0 4.10 1.36 8.12 3.54 1.3

Yes, you read that right. Steamer is projecting 1 inning for Banda this year (a courtesy), while ZiPS is projecting 112 to project his performance. Neither one of those will happen in 2019, but if all goes well he could get some reps in between.

Best case scenario: We see Banda help the Rays make a playoff push in 2019

Worst case scenario: Banda pitches in minors in late 2019, and doesn't make MLB return until 2020. Not too bad, and might be the best option to prevent future injury and make sure he is fully healthy.

Tempering Expectations

Compared to this time last year, 2019 is looking much better than 2018. Rays have a slew of arms available, and more on the way. We know the Rays are going to start 2019 with three starters (Snell/Morton/Glasnow) and two openers, and by the end of the season, the Rays could go back to a “traditional” five man rotation with Snell, Morton, Glasnow, Honeywell and JDL.

Struggles are very real, and many prospects fail to live up to their over hyped projections. However, there is a reason the Rays have targeted JDL & Banda or have held on to the top arms like Honeywell, and it is because they believe they will reach their full potential. We’ve also seen Kyle Snyder & co work what seems like miracles with Wilmer Font, Ryan Yarborough, and helped Blake Snell through his struggles and into a Cy Young award winning pitcher.

There is also still a lot of competition for the last two “rotation spots”. Wilmer Font is coming back from injury, Jacob Faria, Ryan Yarborough, Yonny Chirinos, & Jalen Beeks all already on the MLB roster and competing for starting or “bulk” jobs, and have proven themselves at the MLB level in one way or another, while the other three have not.

But it is tough to not get hyped for the return of Honeywell, JDL & Banda. If they do live up to their potential, the Rays will have one of the best rotations in baseball.