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Sleeper: Rays Pitcher Wade Davis

With the Red Sox and Yankees recently adding big names to their respective rotations other guys like Wade Davis tend to slip under the radar. Davis doesn’t have the name recognition of a John Lackey, Javy Vazquez, or even David Price but he’s pretty darn good. The Rays were confident enough in his abilities to have him take over for Scott Kazmir in the rotation after they traded Kazmir to the Angels.

Davis shined during his first six starts at the big league level. He had strong peripherals (8.92 K/9, 3.22 BB/9, 0.50 HR/9) which led to a 2.90 FIP. This suggests that his 3.72 ERA should have been better though his September 12 performance against the Red Sox (2.2 IP 8 ER) helps explain the bloated ERA. More good news from his big league line: His 62.5% strand rate looks a bit light and his .318 BABIP should be expected to regress.

I was fortunate enough to take in a few of Davis’ starts this past summer and came away impressed each time. During my Baseball America days one of my former colleagues and I closely charted Davis and the opposing pitcher. His broad shouldered build is impressive and he knows how to dial it up with his fastball. Davis’ curveball is a true plus pitch and has filthy break.

The Rays have a lot of rotation depth like the Yankees and Red Sox. But the Rays have younger depth that is spilling into the minor leagues and sparkling on the top prospect lists. As of today the Rays figure to open the season with a tentative rotation of James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, David Price, and Wade Davis. Davis’ sparkling 2009 MLB debut should give the 24 year-old the upper hand for the last rotation spot. He’s slowly but steadily progressed through the Rays system and has no significant injury history. He’s also proven to be a workhorse during his minor league tenure. Here are his combined inning totals the past few seasons:

2009: 195
2008: 161
2007: 158
2006: 146

Davis has seen his inning totals increase every season and he’s had success at every level. He’s ready to be cut loose at the big league level and the Rays should be confident in his ability to provide 180+ innings at the big league level. While there may not be immediate pressure on Davis if he’s the teams fifth starter he better try avoiding any early big season slumps.

Andrew Friedman knows each win really counts in the American League East and if Davis struggles (his weaker points can be his command and consistency of his slider and change up) they have a few appetizing options that could slot in easily for him. Jeremy Hellickson (known for his lethal change up) is going to be pounding on the door at Triple-A Durham where he tore through hitters to wrap up his 2009 season with a 2.66 FIP in nine starts. And Andy Sonnastine is going to be hungry for another opportunity after an embarrassing 2009 showing (5.45 FIP in 100 IP) at the big league level although he showed signs of life (3.37 FIP in nine starts) after a demotion to Durham. Jake McGee cannot be forgotten as he’ll begin his first full season back from Tommy John surgery after tossing 30 innings (mostly in Double-A) during his recovery year. McGee could rocket through the system if he finds his pre-injury stuff.

I like Davis’ chances of nabbing 10-15 wins with an ERA south of 4.00 next season with the Rays. His home run per nine rate will rise from his 0.50 big league marker but Davis’ plus fastball and curve will allow his to earn plenty of strikeouts. A big key to Davis’ game will be his ability to harness his command and if he has it big league hitters better watch out because this guys going to be here to stay.

Davis has flown under the radar and closely monitor him when pitchers and catchers report in February. He has big upside and can be had later during your drafts especially with all the attention New York and Boston’s rotations are receiving.