During the Rays' metamorphosis from a perennial punch line to the envy of small market clubs everywhere, wherein the names and faces frequently changed to fit the constraints of the payroll, the one constant was James Shields.
But now, he's gone. The trade that sent him to the Royals this offseason, though appropriately lauded for its potential long-term impact, makes the Rays' short-term outlook a little less rosy.
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David Price stepping up to win the Cy Young award last year helps, but then again, he's performed at that level for a good three years now. Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore were both elite pitching prospects coming up through the minors but have yet to produce elite numbers so far in the majors. Between them, the brittle-but-effective Niemann, the underappreciated Cobb and up-and-comers Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome, the Rays shouldn't have trouble putting together a capable starting five. But as a team that has always relied on a patchwork lineup, they'll need to find that second ace to stay competitive in a division loaded with big bats.
The good news is the onus isn't entirely on the starting rotation. Between Joel Peralta, Jake McGee and closer Fernando Rodney -- he of the 0.60 ERA last year -- the Rays should dominate the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Rodney's unexpected breakthrough at age 35 last year has prompted its share of skeptics, but given his dramatically improved walk rate, it likely wasn't all smoke and mirrors.
And let's not lose sight of the fact that the Rays made their starting lineup somewhat less patchwork in the Shields trade, acquiring a potential cornerstone player in Wil Myers. Between him, star third baseman Evan Longoria and on-base specialist Ben Zobrist, whose versatility often overshadows his production, the Rays have a competent middle of the order -- or will, anyway, once they decide Myers is ready. And if Desmond Jennings stays healthy and takes the expected step forward in his sophomore season, they could have what they always hoped to get from B.J. Upton in center field.
Still, with castoffs like Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, James Loney, Luke Scott, Jose Molina and Ryan Roberts comprising the rest of the lineup, this team's fate ultimate rests with its pitching staff. As usual.
Breakout ... Matt Moore, starting pitcher
Those who bought into Moore last year, when the hype was at its highest, might be reluctant to do so now even though now might actually be the more reasonable time for a breakout. The Moore we saw last year wasn't the same one who dominated over five minor-league seasons. That one's control issues were behind him, which is partly why so many assumed he'd thrive as a rookie. This one issued 4.1 walks per nine innings, seventh-most among qualifying pitchers. How does that happen? One surefire way is by trying to do too much. Moore was at his worst in April, when he might have been trying to justify the hype. Once he settled in, he was a radically improved pitcher, compiling a 2.88 ERA and 3.6 walks per nine innings during a 17-start stretch from May 28 to Aug. 30. Sure, he had a rocky September, but that's not too uncommon for rookie pitchers. It'll make him more affordable on Draft Day. Now that he's had a year to get acclimated, Moore should come closer to maximizing his David Price-like potential.
Sleeper ... Alex Cobb, starting pitcher
Cobb might be the one Ray celebrating the departure of James Shields, and Fantasy owners should be right there with him. How so many of them overlooked that aspect of the deal is a crime against the rankings. Maybe it's because they don't perceive him as having the job yet, but considering he's been the team's go-to sixth man over the last two years, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion. Maybe it's because they see him as a kid still cutting his teeth in the majors, but he made 23 starts last year and lasted seven-plus innings in 11 of them. Maybe it's because they look at his numbers in those 23 starts and think, "Eh, nothing special," but if you remove the two outlier eight-run outings from the equation, he had a 3.22 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 21 starts. So basically, Cobb is further along than most Fantasy owners think and better than most Fantasy owners think. Sounds like exactly what you want in a late-round pick.
Impact prospect ... Wil Myers, outfielder
Once Mike Trout and Bryce Harper reached the majors in late April, Wil Myers became the talk of the minor leagues. And yet unlike Trout and Harper, he never got a taste of the majors. The Royals had no reason to rush him. They were out of it. The Rays, on the other hand, didn't acquire him to see if he could win the Triple Crown at Triple-A. They have the pitching to win now, but they need bats big time. Not only is Myers arguably the best hitting prospect in baseball, but he's the closest to being major-league ready. He won't have a job at the start of the season -- the Rays all but confirmed that much -- but when they took the same stance with Evan Longoria in 2008, he spent all of a week in the minors. As long as Myers doesn't fall flat on his face at Triple-A Durham, he'll arrive as soon as the Rays realize how desperately they need him. Don't fall for it again. Invest a middle-round pick in Myers, stash him for a month and enjoy.
Myers is obviously the most notable of the Rays' prospects and, given his proximity to the majors, the one most worthy of drafting in single-season formats, but pitching is the focus of the Rays farm system, as has been the case for several years now. Chris Archer got a chance to showcase his strikeout-per-inning stuff in the majors last year and would likely get the first call if Jeff Niemann or some other member of the starting rotation suffered an injury. He has control issues, but he'll matter in mixed leagues when he arrives. Alex Colome and Jake Odorizzi, who came over with Myers from the Royals, are also at the doorstep, but because of all the names ahead of them, you can leave them for AL-only leagues. Of all the Rays' pitching prospects, Taylor Guerrieri has the best chance of becoming a true ace, but he still has a few years of development ahead of him. ... Hak-Ju Lee remains a big part of the Rays' future, but after slumping at Double-A Montgomery last year, the speedy shortstop will have to tear up Triple-A to get a look this year. ... Tim Beckham, the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, has crept his way up to Triple-A, but his numbers are still underwhelming. Unless you like prospective utility players, you can leave him be.
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