Rays Rotation: Depth Chart Discussions

The Tampa Bay Rays last used a free-agent starter in 2002. Since then, the team has received incredible contributions strictly relying on homegrown talent. The streak may continue in 2013, as all five current starters came up through the Rays’ system. At the top, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore have already proven themselves as strong fantasy contributors. There’s some uncertainty at the back-end, but given the Rays’ penchant for turning out quality contributors, every player should be on fantasy owners’ radar.

There’s not much to say about David Price from a fantasy perspective. The reigning AL Cy Young winner, is consistent. Over the last three seasons, Price has tossed over 200 innings. His strikeout rate, which was already a strong 21.8% in 2010, has risen in both 2011 and 2012. At age-27, there’s no reason to expect him to perform any differently in 2013. He’s one of the best fantasy starters around, and will be drafted as such.

Jeremy Hellickson has done some strange things in his major-league career. Over the last two seasons, he’s posted extremely low batting averages on balls in play. He lead the league in 2011, with a .223 figure. That jumped to .261 last year, which was still one of the lower figures in baseball. He’s also stranded 82.2% of runners over his career, much higher than the 72.5% league average over that period. Because of that, he’s been a candidate for regression for two straight seasons. Is Hellickson capable of sustaining those rates and breaking FIP? Unless he’s figured out something no other pitcher has been able to replicate throughout history, his ERA will meet his FIP at some point.

Matt Moore went through the typical rookie-year struggles but recovered, turning out a strong rookie season. Based on his strong track record throughout the minors, he’s a candidate to be even better this season. Moore is going to be relied upon even more now that James Shields is no longer a member of the staff. He had a 10.7% walk rate during his rookie year, but has typically shown much better control in the minors. If he can make some adjustments during his sophomore campaign, he could be one the year’s breakout stars. Every fantasy owners know about him, though, so it’s not like you’re going to get a discount on his elite potential.

Alex Cobb‘s 3.67 FIP ranked as the 37 lowest among pitchers with at least 100 innings last season. That put him in the same company as Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija and Jake Peavy, to cherry-pick a few names. Aside from his 58.8% ground ball rate, Cobb didn’t display a ton of elite skills. He gets just enough strikeouts, limits walks and keeps the ball on the ground. That’s a recipe for success in both real-life and in fantasy. Given the Rays’ strong infield defense, Cobb’s numbers could be slightly better than expected. He’s received plenty of sleeper buzz during the offseason, so you won’t be able to try and wait and pick him up late.

Jeff Niemann got off to a promising start before injuries wrecked his 2012. The owner of a 4.23 career FIP, Niemann’s overall performance hasn’t been bad, but he doesn’t own the elite skills needed to be a fantasy option. It should be noted that Niemann did see his strikeout rate rise to a strong level in 2012, but it’s tough to say whether that will continue. He seemed to rely more on his breaking pitches, and may have added a cutter. If he can stay healthy, which has been a major issue for him since he joined the Rays, he could be an effective pitcher. He’ll only be fantasy worthy if he retains his strikeout gain from last year.

If Roberto Hernandez, the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona, can work his way into the rotation, the Rays steak of homegrown starters would come to an end. Hernandez has never had strong strikeout rates, relying on contact and letting his defense try and pick him up. That approach actually could work on this Rays’ club. He’s not going to do enough in other areas to make him worthwhile in all but the deep fantasy leagues.

Control issues are the only thing holding Chris Archer back at this point in his career. He’s already shown an ability to strikeout major-league hitters due to a devastating fastball, slider combination. If he can improve on his control, or fully develop his change-up, he could be a dangerous option at the back of the club’s rotation. He might see a fair amount of time in that role, as Niemann is no bet to stay healthy and Hernandez isn’t a special player.

Even after trading away Shields, the Rays should boast a strong pitching staff. Price and Moore are the big prizes, while Hellickson will try and prove he can defy the odds. At the back end, the team could either try out old-upside veterans, or go with younger, high-upside pitchers. The latter group would command attention in fantasy leagues and deserve to be owned if they end up in starting positions. Given the success of the team with homegrown starters, fantasy owners need to know any pitcher the team has drafted and developed over the last couple of seasons.

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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

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