The Red Sox are struggling to keep up with the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Yankees are already out of the division race. The Rays' hitting has been solid in 2008, their defense has vastly improved, and their pitching has been fantastic. They also arguably have the best top-to-bottom starting rotation in all of baseball.
But do you know what the most impressive element of the current Tampa Bay Rays is? As good as their rotation has been in 2008, they could theoretically lose all five of their current starters in 2009 and not suffer a huge dropoff in talent.
Their current rotation of Scott Kazmir, Jamie Shields, Edwin Jackson, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine has had an incredible year. They have started all but seven of the Rays games, they have allowed less than a hit per inning, they strike out well over two batters for every batter walked, and they've thrown seven complete games and five shutouts, the latter of which leads the major leagues.
But next year they could all be gone and the Rays might not even notice the dropoff.
This is because behind Kazmir-Shields-Jackson-Garza-Sonnanstine sits another crop of talented young pitchers just chomping at the bit to get into the rotation. Perhaps the most well-known of these players is David Price, last year's number one overall pick who has thus far blown through A+ and AA ball before finally hitting some speed bumps in Triple-A.
Add to Price two players currently with the big squad but earning their keep in the bullpen: J.P. Howell and Jason Hammel. Last season, at the age of 24, Howell struck out 145 batters in 128 innings at Triple-A and had a K:BB ratio over 4:1, while this year he has over a strikeout per inning and a 182 ERA+ in the bullpen, where his only flaw has been struggles with bases on balls (32 in 68.2 innings).
Hammel got five starts in April when Scott Kazmir was hurt, going 2-2 with an ERA in the fours before being relinquished to the bullpen for the duration of the season. Unfortunately, he hasn't shown the K/IP or the K:BB ratio he had in the minors, where he allowed fewer hits than innings pitched in six minor league seasons, and often saw hit K:BB ratio in the 3:1 range, but given time he should come around.
Mitch Talbot and Jeff Niemann are two guys with little-to-no major league experience who could be up with the squad if the current rotation weren't so deep. Niemann, a six-foot-nine-inch behemoth, had two starts – one good, one not – when Kazmir was hurt to start the season, and has spent the rest of the season in Triple-A, where he is giving up less than a hit per inning and has 105 strikeouts in 110.1 innings.
Talbot, who came over to the Rays in the Aubrey Huff trade a few years ago, is only 24 despite his six minor league seasons, and is currently pitching very well in Triple-A. He has a 13-7 record with a 3.77 ERA, and has a 131:29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 150.1 innings. His minor league K:BB ratio approaches 3:1 (671:241), and although he has allowed 826 hits in 825.2 innings, he does not give up a lot of homeruns.
So, what is a team to do in a situation like this?
If the Rays were a big market team, many of these pitchers would not have made it past the July 31st trade deadline. The Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Angels, and Mets would have probably gladly parted with some, if not all, of these guys in order to bring some big bats to prepare for the run down the stretch.
But the Rays are not a big market team, and not dealing these guys was a wise move. As great as the Rays' story has been this year, the reality for this small market team is that only 1.3 million people have turned out to see the best story in baseball for 2008, which makes them 12th out of 14 American League teams in attendance. Although the Rays have managed to sign Scott Kazmir, Jamie Shields and Evan Longoria to long term contracts, this is a team with more rising stars than income. Jackson, Garza, and Sonnanstine are all pitching on one-year deals and look to command more money in the years to come, while relief pitching sensation Grant Balfour could be looking to cash in on his excellent 2008 season this off-season.
What's more, the 2008 payroll is the team's highest since the bloated-with-big-names teams of 1998 and 1999. With this team on the rise and tasting success for the first time, there are likely too many players looking to capitalize.
Fortunately for the Rays, they did not panic at the trading deadline and drain their well-stocked farm system in an effort to make a run at the playoffs that they were already well-suited to make. This means that in the next year or two they won't be stuck in the big-contract- empty-farm-system mode of operation that has sunk so many small market (and big market, for that matter) teams in recent years.
Going forward, the Rays need to continue to make the types of smart, small moves that brought them Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, Grant Balfour for Seth McClung, Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris, and Mitch Talbot for Aubrey Huff, while also combing the desert for guys like Troy Percival, Carlos Pena, Cliff Floyd, and Eric Hinske. And they also need to continue to sign their young guys to medium-range contracts, like they have with Kazmir, Shields, and Longoria.
But now that the Rays have a lot of talent on their team, they also need to starting playing a little Moneyball, taking advantage of the talent of today, particularly the guys they have no hope of signing once they can command top dollar on the free agent market, in order to continue to stock their farm system with the talent of tomorrow, so that they don't end up empty handed when their players sign elsewhere.
The good news for Tampa Bay fans is that judging by the shrewd moves their front office has made in the last couple of years in building the team they current have on the field, the Rays will have no trouble at all adjusting to their new role as playoff contenders, while also making the types of moves that stay within their capabilities as a small market franchise, while also sustaining their success for years to come.
Read more insights from Asher Chancey at BaseballEvolution.com.
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