For some, 2016 Spring Training marks the start of a brand new Major League Baseball season. For others, this time of year marks the height of the presidential primary elections. While many pontificate over who is best suited to lead the country, The Sports Fan Journal fam decided to take a look at which player, manager, or front office member is the best candidate to lead their team to the top of the baseball mountain.
For the Tampa Bay Rays, having a stash of young and promising pitching is nothing new. If anything, it has been the calling card and go to recipe for their oft-against the odds success. Calling back to the days of Scott Kazmir, then followed by the emergence of David Price, James Shields, Matt Garza, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa may be short on desirable venues to see their product in, but if you make the trek to Tropicana Field, more often than not you will be treated to a well-pitched game from the home team.
And to that extent, some things never change, and this is the case for Rays pitching (as well as its unsavory home venue). While all of the aforementioned arms have departed for more lucrative pastures now, the current crop of arms in Tampa is well-positioned to continue to the tradition of frontline pitching. However, unlike many of their predecessors, their current starting staff is a largely no-name collection of effective, emergent stars. But while none are number one overall picks in the mold of Price or made their All-Star debut at a precocious young age like Kazmir did as a 22-year-old in 2006, this current group of Rays starters could prove to be the best collection top to bottom they have ever assembled.
Now that is tall talk considering group this organization had that launched them to a World Series appearance in 2008, fueled by multi-time All-Stars Price, Shields and the ALCS MVP Garza. But when analyzing the parts of the group, and it was for good reason that many general managers around the game waited to see if any of them would be made available via trade this offseason before they tossed their checkbooks into the fire that was the open market price for pitching this winter. It is a salaciously strong group that is collectively on the incline for their respective careers.
If there is a true star amongst the staff, it is without a doubt Chris Archer. The 27-year-old came into his own in 2015, focusing one of the filthiest arms in the game into propelling himself into being mentioned among the best pitchers in the American League. Although, he finished with a sub-.500 record a year ago, Archer still made his All-Star debut and subsequently finished fifth in the vote for the American League Cy Young award. This was due to his ability to so effortlessly dominate an outing—and the frequency he did it with. He finished second in the American League with 252 strikeouts, as he averaged 10.7 k’s per nine innings and ran up eight double-digit strikeout outings on the year.
But Archer is far from alone, as Jake Odorizzi is on his heels in regards to increasing profile amongst the game’s best young arms. He was the secondary part of the trade that sent James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City before the 2013 season, but his value has outlasted and surpassed that of the then-centerpiece of the deal, Wil Myers. Odorizzi is not the overwhelming flamethrower that Archer is, but his movement throughout the zone is some of the most impressive in the game. A leap to the All-Star level could be ahead of him this summer.
Next up is one of the most slept on arms in the game in Drew Smyly. He was the centerpiece return from Detroit when Price was dealt from Tampa in 2014, and for good reason, as he is yet another strong lefty who can seem unhittable at times. Since coming over to Tampa, Smyly has carried a 2.52 ERA over 19 starts, including four starts in September of last year where he allowed one or fewer runs.
As if that was not enough, there’s the two arms in the mix that are rounding back into form after a pair Tommy John surgeries over the past two years: Matt Moore and Alex Cobb. If the question of who would be the best arm in Tampa by now was posed just two years ago, this duo would easily have been mentioned on the same level as Archer, and the future could still hold that prediction true.
Moore is entering his second season back from surgery and has been dominant this spring, posting 11 strikeouts over 10 innings in three starts, while once again posting the strong arm that allowed him to be an All-Star and 17-game winner in 2013. The second year back is when recovering pitchers from surgery usually find their form again, and as a result, the Rays could be finding themselves hosting another ace in the making yet again.
Yet, while Archer was rising to power and Moore was battling arm troubles, it was Alex Cobb that inserted himself as the top dog in the Rays rotation. From 2012-2014, Cobb won 32 games and twice posted full-season ERAs underneath 3.00. He was set to take the ball on Opening Day for the first time a year ago when it was revealed that he too would have to undergo elbow surgery and would miss the season. The loss of Cobb played a big part in why the Rays could not hold onto the strong push they made atop the AL East midway through last year, however he is expected to be back by August of this summer and could be one of the top pseudo ‘trade deadline’ additions that any team makes.
Consider the fact that with all of this talent is present, veteran Erasmo Ramirez’ presence is missed somewhat, and he posted an 11-5 record himself a year ago as a vital veteran pivot amid the less than 100% healthy rotation.
All things considered, it is odd how overlooked the depth of pitching is in Tampa, as it should be no secret that this staff could dominate the American League when all of its pieces align. Yet somehow, this still goes overlooked. Consider the fact that, collectively, the Rays’ young collection of arms is due to rake in about $12 million on the year— which is nearly $20 million south of what Rays’ alumni Price is now taking in annually on his own, and it is without dispute that the Tampa formula of getting high return on marginal investment is as alive and well as it ever has been.
And it could be the fuel that lights pushes this club to one of the most surprising divisional championship heists of the summer as well. But if this happens, please don’t say you didn’t see it coming, although it will still likely be the case.
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