Over the last decade or so, the Tampa Bay Rays have established themselves as one of the best pitching development organizations in baseball. First came Scott Kazmir, then James Shields, then David Price, then Alex Cobb, then Chris Archer. There have been others along the way too, like Matt Garza and Jake Odorizzi.
The latest prized young starter to come up through Tampa's farm system is left-hander Blake Snell, who made his MLB debut last season and threw 89 innings with a 3.54 ERA. He struck out 98 batters. For a rookie in the hitter-friendly AL East, that's a heck of a performance. The Rays have another gem on their hands.
Development is not always linear, however. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, and so far this season Snell has experienced one giant bump. Saturday afternoon he allowed six runs on six hits and three walks in 5 2/3 innings against the Red Sox. Snell dropped to 0-4 with a 4.71 ERA on the season. After the game, he was sent to Triple-A.
At this point last season the 24-year-old Snell was arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball. He broke out with a monster 2015 season, during which he posted a 1.41 ERA with 163 strikeouts in 134 innings at three different minor-league levels. There was every reason to believe he was a budding star.
The demotion to Triple-A is not permanent, of course, nor does it mean Snell is a bust. Lots and lots of great players had to make a return trip to the minors at some point to figure things out. Snell has struggled mostly with his control -- he's walked 25 batters in 41 2/3 innings this year -- and the Rays want him to straighten that out. Once it happens, he'll be back in the Show.
For now, Snell's demotion is a reminder that even the best prospects sometimes struggle early in the big leagues. The Rays are as good at developing pitchers as any team in baseball, but it's clear right now Snell needs to work on things in a place where wins and losses don't matter.