Quick, guess which team has the lowest ERA in the major leagues? Since you're reading this on SB Nation Tampa Bay, and because the Marlins are terrible, and because the headline mentions the Rays, I bet you'd guess the Rays. Well, you're right, and I should make these guessing games harder in the future.
The Rays have a phenomenal starting rotation and, at least for 2012, a very solid bullpen. And ERA isn't the only indicator of how awesome they've been. FIP, a measurement used by FanGraphs to value the events directly under a pitcher's control (walks, strikeouts and homers), has the Rays as the second-best pitching staff in baseball. If you limit your view to starting pitchers, the Rays still have the sixth-lowest FIP and second-lowest ERA in baseball.
Here's a quick-and-dirty statistical look at the Rays' starters, individually:
* Note: This list leaves off Cesar Ramos, who only started a single game for the Rays, and lasted less than three innings.
Most teams would be thrilled to see this, on so many levels. Not only is this distilled statistical awesomeness, but most of the starters in this list are young. Moore, Cobb, Hellickson and Archer are on rookie contracts. Price and Niemann aren't done with arbitration yet. Shields is the only one into his free-agent years.
With holes to fill (MI, 1B, and OF, for certain) in order to compete in the ultra-competitive AL East, logic stands to reason that the team could move some of its pitching depth in order to fill other holes in the roster. But keep this in mind: the Rays have a history of phenomenal luck with their rotation in terms of pitchers staying healthy and effective. Though Jeff Niemann missed most of the season with a serious shoulder injury, the team has had a pretty good run of luck with starters, and most teams would kill to only have used eight guys in the rotation this season.
Nevertheless, the Rays would be wise to keep some of their pitching depth intact. In my opinion, they should enter the season with six of the seven players listed in the chart above on the roster. With Niemann a bit of a question mark coming off of his injury, the team would probably benefit from having five other starters ready to go on Opening Day 2013. But that means that one of those seven could probably be made available in a trade. Let's examine what the best options might be for the Rays.
David Price is awesome. David Price is young. David Price is still cost-controlled. David Price is left-handed. David Price is unlikely to bring an equal return in trade. David Price is (probably) not going anywhere.
Matt Moore would be making an excellent case for American League Rookie of the Year, if only it weren't for the excellent rookie crop this season, most especially Mike Trout of the Angels. Moore, who was rated below only Bryce Harper and Mike Trout among prospects prior to this season, has been pretty great, considering his rawness. His huge potential as a front-line starter, and the fact that he's on his rookie contract for a few more years, means that he's unlikely to go anywhere at all.
Chris "Duchess" Archer, who was acquired from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal, is also young and also has strikeout stuff. In fact, in his limited time in the bigs in 2012, Archer struck out 34 hitters in under 28 innings. Archer has always had a live arm, but has had control problems in the minors and could be an injury risk going forward. Nevertheless, the Rays have a remarkable track record of developing their young pitchers. If they can harness Archer's live arm and keep him healthy, he won't just be a good starter, he'll be a great one. Plus, he's just 23 and has got at least six more years of team control ahead of him. That's a keeper.
Who Could Go?
James Shields is the only pitcher on the Rays staff whose contract is almost up -- but he's got two club options for 2013 and 2014. The 2013 option is priced at $9 million (with a $1.5 million buyout), and the 2014 option sits at $12 million (with a $1 million buyout), so it's not to say that Big Game James must go. In fact, Bradley Woodrum made an excellent case for the kind of pitcher Shields has become just last week:
Should the Rays stick with Shields or trade him? It is hard to say he is getting worse and much easier to guess that he is getting even better, so any return from him should rival (though not exceed) the ransom that Price would bring.
Well, here's the truth of the matter: no major league team will pay as much for Shields as they will for Price, given the young left-hander's youth, projectability and elite performance. But Bradley makes the excellent point that Shields may be worth more than he's perceived to be by the public. If the Rays desperately needed to cut payroll, Shields might be the right guy to move. But if not, the Rays benefit more by having the #2 starter than by dealing him. The idea is to make sure that the team still has a world-class starting rotation, even after they make a trade or two.
Jeremy Hellickson's name has come up in trade rumors already, despite his only having two full seasons of work under his belt. A highly-touted prospect with strikeout stuff in the minors, Hellickson has really failed to put up big K numbers in the major leagues. Despite that, and a propensity to walk hitters, Hellickson has managed very good ERAs in his two pro seasons, sitting at 2.95 last season and 3.20 during this season. It's a fair bet that Hellboy has been more than a little lucky in his time in Tampa, and while some teams may be salivating over those low ERAs, his youth and his stuff, others may be put off by the underlying peripherals. It may be worth giving Hellickson a little more time to see if the strikeout stuff develops, which could boost his trade value and his in-game value. Though the team also runs the risk of his regressing to league-average.
Who Should Go?
Quite honestly, if I were the Tampa Bay Rays, I'd look to move Alex Cobb, the young right-hander who proved he belongs in a major league rotation this season. Unlike some of the other rotational stalwarts in Tampa, Cobb is both young (meaning that even rebuilding teams would be interested) and has proven himself over almost a full season in the danger zone of the AL East. Cobb's stats aren't as pretty as his rotation compatriots, and he doesn't have the same prospect pedigree as Price, Moore, Hellickson or even Archer. Nevertheless, he's acquitted himself well, and would probably be even better in a division that isn't quite so hard on pitchers.
Cobb's not the kind of pitcher who projects to be a strikeout machine. With only 6.8 K/9 in 2012 and a 4.27 ERA, an argument could be made that Cobb is actually the worst of the Rays' collection of starters. But Cobb has a secret weapon, a sterling 58.4% ground ball percentage on the season. Not only does a GB% that high serve as a good indicator of future success, it makes Cobb particularly attractive to teams who play in bandbox stadiums like Rangers Park in Arlington, Camden Yards in Baltimore or the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. With Tropicana Field suppressing HR both by the Rays and by their opponents, a pitcher like Cobb isn't quite as valuable in Tampa as he might be elsewhere.
Looking to the offseason, I think that there's actually a number of starting pitching options that will be available in free agency. Teams looking to purchase starting depth can choose from Zack Greinke, Dan Haren (reportedly), Ervin Santana (reportedly), Ryan Dempster, Joe Blanton, Jeremy Guthrie, Hiroki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson, Francisco Liriano, Kyle Lohse, Brandon McCarthy, Carl Pavano, Anibal Sanchez and Carlos Villanueva. Whoa. That's a lot of starters with track records and/or potential.
Fortunately for the Rays, none of these players have one of the things that both Cobb and Hellickson (and Moore and Archer, for that matter) have: cost efficiency. A team looking to add a solid starter without breaking the bank could come to the Rays and offer an offensive building piece in exchange for a solid young starter. Given the Rays' recent successes in keeping their young pitchers healthy and effective, that would probably be a wise deal for Andrew Friedman to make.
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs, and are current as of Wednesday, Sept. 26.