Baseball season is upon us, and the AL East is as competitive as ever. Any of the five teams could legitimately win 90 or more games, making it the most formidable division in Major League Baseball. I’ll be going position by position on a daily basis, analyzing how the Rays are situated heading into the season, and how they compare to the rest of the division at each spot. Before breaking down each position, I’d like to focus on what pitchers to keep an eye on during Spring Training.
Rays pitchers were in a class of their own in 2012. Collectively, the starters and relievers were a remarkable group. Up and down the rotation, there wasn’t a weakness. The same could be said for the bullpen. There were individual performances that set the standard for the organization. Fernando Rodney was the best reliever in baseball, while David Price took home the Cy Young award. I will break down each of the pitchers in upcoming days, but today the focus is what to watch for during Spring Training.
David Price has improved each of the past three seasons. His fastball command is significantly better, his changeup and curveball have shown improvement, and he has even developed a cutter. So why is Price someone to keep an eye on? As dominating as Price was in 2012, he can still improve. A scary proposition for opponents, to be sure. Price’s fastball is as good as it gets. His secondary pitches are successful because hitters must be ready for the fastball. From a scouting perspective, Price’s secondary offerings are no better then MLB average. Coming out of Vanderbilt, Price had an elite slider. That is no longer the case, and Price rarely throws it at this point. With the dramatic improvement Price has shown each season, will he continue this trend? Keep an eye on the evolution of Price’s secondary pitches this spring. If they show improvement, look out.
Wil Myers has been getting quite a bit of attention this offseason. But it wasn’t that long ago that Matt Moore was the talk of baseball. As a matter of fact, it was just last offseason. After a dominating stint at the end of the 2011 season, expectations were soaring for Moore. After a slow start, Moore put together a couple of strong months to finish the season. There are two things he needs to accomplish to become an elite pitcher. First, he needs to improve his fastball command, and get ahead of hitters. His fastball is similar to David Price’s, but with more movement. Second, once he gets ahead, he must finish the hitter. This something I like to call “Scott Kazmiritis”. At times, he struggled in 2012 once he got to two strikes on the batter. His inability to put away hitters caused elevated pitch counts, and early exits from the game. His secondary pitches are fantastic, but he needs to improve his pitch selection and placement once he gets ahead. Keep an eye on how Moore attacks the strikezone, and how he finishes hitters this spring.
The Rays are quickly becoming known for their ability to resurrect the careers of downtrodden pitchers. JP Howell, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, and Fernando Rodney are just some of the pitchers that have experienced career years with the Rays. Roberto Hernandez could be the next on that list. Formerly known as Fausto Carmona, Hernandez burst onto the scene in 2007, contending for the AL Cy Young. Since then, quite simply, he has been brutal. What’s interesting is he has the “stuff” to be successful. Armed with a power sinker, he can generate groundballs, yet also has swing and miss stuff. Will he be the 2013 version of Fernando Rodney, coming from nowhere? Lets temper our expectations. But keep an eye on him this spring. If he can pound the strikezone with his sinker down in the zone, he can be effective for the defensive minded Rays. If he gets his secondary stuff going, and can keep his cool on the mound, he has the ability to be lights out.
Chris Archer is a name that you’ll hear consistently from Rays fans who have high expectations for him. While I understand the excitement that Archer can generate, at this point, he belongs in AAA. He may have splashed in his MLB debut last season, but he needs to prove he can consistently command the strikezone. His fastball and slider are both knock out pitches. His changeup continues to be a work in progress, but his stuff is good enough to get away with a mediocre changeup. Just last June, many were starting to worry that Archer would not live up to the hype of being a key piece in the Matt Garza trade. He had been inconsistent throughout his minor league career, in particular around the strikezone. At the midway point of last season, there were more questions than answers regarding Archer. He showed significant improvement in the second half of his season, but can that success carry over to this season? If Archer can command his fastball, he can be a legit #2 starting pitcher. If he can command his fastball and have a league average changeup, the sky is the limit. Those are his two keys to watch for this spring.
I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong on a player. Last offseason I said Jake McGee would not be successful because he lacked an offspeed pitch. Anything he threw not named a “fastball” was terrible. I was half right. He secondary stuff continued to be abysmal in 2012, but he was able to command a fastball that rivaled the best in baseball. How good was Jake McGee last season? This good. If McGee is able to mix in an average offspeed pitch, he’ll be devastating. This spring, keep an eye on what Jake McGee is throwing, other than his fastball.
In 2011, Kyle Farnsworth was excellent as the Rays closer. The emergence of Fernando Rodney overshadowed the absence of Farnsworth who missed the first half of the season with elbow soreness. Once Farnsworth returned, he was good, but not great. He appeared to be holding back because of his elbow, as his velocity was not consistently as high as the previous season, and his slider didn’t have the same bite. A sore elbow makes throwing a good, tight slider difficult. If his elbow is 100%, expect to see the 2011 version of Farnsworth in 2013. Keep an eye on Kyle Farnsworth’s velocity and slider this spring.
Finally, Alex Torres is a player that took a monumental step backwards last season while in Durham. He has the pure stuff to be a top notch starting pitcher, but his command is well below average. Heading into 2012, he was seen as a potential callup if one of the Rays starters went down with an injury. With an ERA over 7 and by walking a batter per inning, he was relegated to the bullpen midway through the 2012 season. The good news is that he appeared to get back on track in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he was one of the top performers. He struck out a boat load of hitters, and his control was much more reasonable. Keep an eye on him this spring, because if he can command his pitches, he could be a useful pitcher for the Rays down the road.
Tomorrow, I will start by position by position break down, and how the Rays compare to their AL East brethren.