TAMPA BAY RAYS

It would be easy to write off the Rays for another subpar year and make jokes about the stadium and (lack of) fans. They’ve lost all their offense, especially the greatest Yankee Killer of my time besides David Ortiz: Evan Longoria. Just an atrocious franchise. There shouldn’t be any concern about the Rays, but I’m going to make a bold statement here: Tampa’s rotation has the potential to be the best in the AL East. I said it was going to be bold.

To be the best, you have to be unique. If you don’t believe anything else I say in this article, just know the Rays are going to be unique. Manager Kevin Cash announced the team would be using a four-man rotation this year. The difference between the Rays’ four-man and traditional ones will be the use of a “bullpen day” on the “fifth starter’s” day.

Born in 1977, Kevin Cash was barely alive the last time a four-man rotation was used. In the past, it was very common and often successful, but nowadays pitchers are kept on strict pitch limits with a larger emphasis on bullpens. Washington Nationals’ starters lead the MLB in innings per start last year with a measly 6.0.

It’s clear why the Rays pulled the trigger on this. They are not competing for anything this year, so they have nothing to lose. Some analysts (Brian Kenny) will tell you there shouldn’t even be starters; just ‘openers.’ However, this experiment is not as foreign as you might think. What happens every postseason? Teams move to a four-man rotation! Of course, it’s hard to compare a seven-game strategy to a 162-game one, but don’t act like you have never seen this before.

Essentially, the Rays thought process is that using their bullpen, one or two innings per hurler, is better than trotting out their projected fifth starter. The advanced metrics community always hammers down the point that ERA skyrockets the third time through an order, so is it really that crazy to think an entire bullpen is better than a fifth starter? I think not.

I know, I know. I completely overlooked the potential for Tampa relievers to be overworked (think Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman in 2016 playoffs) and how Kevin Cash may handle days where the regular starters can’t get out of the 2ndinning. But that’s no fun. If you want more on that, you can read this article from Yahoo! Sports.. Now, let’s take a look at the four starters who will lead this staff to be the best in the AL East.

Rays Projected Rotation

PlayerHandedIPWLERA
Chris ArcherR201.010124.07
Blake SnellL129.1574.04
Jacob FariaR86.2543.43
Nathan EovaldiRN/A. Tommy John Surgery
The Bullpen

Chris Archer. He’s my favorite non-Yankees pitcher because of his quote about MLB’s initiative to change the pace of play rules. Besides that, he might have the best “stuff” going. I have no metrics to back that up – spin rate, break, etc. – (because that’s about where I draw the line on that garbage) and I don’t need it. Just watch the kid throw. Now, there’s no denying since 2016 he hasn’t looked good. How can someone who lead the MLB in losses in 2016 (19) have the best stuff? Answer: he plays for the Rays.

Archer’s ERA, FIP, and xFIP for 2016 and 2017 were 4.02/3.81/3.41 and 4.07/3.40/3.35, respectively. If you believe in this wizardry, it means he got screwed. Archer is a case where the eye test and advanced metrics match up. As is the case with Stroman, Archer can pitch like a Cy Young winner any day of the week. Luckily, the Yankees have had success against Archer. Last year, the team managed a .271 batting average against him, while his overall BAA was .246. I’m hoping this trend continues, but it doesn’t take away from the fact he is one of the most talented pitchers in baseball. And in my humble opinion, I think he might be in pinstripes by the trade deadline, if not spring training. Where else is Tyler Wade going to go? I hear the weather in Tampa is better than Scranton.

But one guy doesn’t make up the best staff in a division. Blake Snell should be very familiar to Yankees fans, especially because he pitched extremely well in the House that George Built during his MLB debut. No one would have blamed him for getting shelled in the Bronx on an occasion like that, but the highly touted Snell exited the game after five strong innings with the Rays leading 2-1. Since then, Snell has maintained his highly touted status.

Again, it’s hard to give these guys fair assessments given which team they play for, but with Snell, it’s easy to read between the lines. He struggled mightily pre-All Star break last season, but really turned it on afterwards. According to Bill Chastain from MLB.com, Snell moved his starting position from the left side of the rubber to the middle, and the stats speak for themselves after that switch. In his final eight starts of 2017, the southpaw tossed a 2.62 ERA, didn’t record a loss (that still matters to me), and averaged more than one strikeout per inning. Even with his early season struggles, his batting average against lefties and righties was .179 and .240, respectively. This says a lot about a guy who plays for a harrowing franchise like the Rays. The former #12 prospect in baseball is slated for a breakout season. Look for Snell to bring his 2017 momentum back to Tampa this year.

Jacob Faria showed a lot of promise in his rookie season last year. In 86.2 innings, Faria posted a 3.43 ERA and held left-handed hitters to a .173 batting average. This campaign essentially guaranteed him a spot in the rotation, and after Jake Odorizzi was traded to the Twins, Faria moved to the number three slot.

He features a fastball-changeup mix, which is why he’s tough on lefties. However, the advanced stats don’t speak well for the upcoming season. The elevated FIP and xFIP seem to be driven by his low BABIP (.265). Compare this to Archer’s which was .325. Guys like Faria are great case studies to see how well advanced metrics can predict a season. If he can hone in on that great changeup, this sophomore pitcher could prove to be even better than Blake Snell.

Rising from the ashes like a phoenix to round out the four-man rotation is “Nasty” Nate Eovaldi. I loved Eovaldi as a Yankee, but like many other fans, grew frustrated with his ups and downs. During his final season in pinstripes, Eovaldi talked about losing the feel for his splitter. That may seem silly, but if my time playing baseball taught me anything, it was that this game, especially for pitchers, is a mental one. I imagine for pitchers coming off of Tommy John surgery, it’s only magnified. He didn’t work out for the Yankees, but perhaps limited pressure in Tampa will help him feel his pitches a bit more.

So far this spring, Eovaldi is showing what everyone thought he could be. He is consistently throwing 99 mph, did not allow a base runner until his third start, and did not let up a run until Saturday. When he makes his first regular season start this year, he will be the 12th player in MLB history to do so after a second Tommy John surgery.

I said the Rays might have the best rotation in the AL East. Let’s recap: Chris Archer is an ace with a history of bad luck, Blake Snell is poised for a breakout year, improvements to Jacob Faria’s pitch arsenal can block the ‘sophomore slump,’ Nathan Eovaldi has always had ace stuff, and the bullpen has the potential to be better than any fifth starter in the league. Call me crazy, but this seems like a winning recipe.

Then again, it’s the Rays.

Twitter: @RobRosene

**Stats from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference

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