The Tampa Bay Rays are an organization known for many things at this point in their history, which has been short and fraught with intrigue. They’re known for having been terrible, but now being good. They’re known for spending money efficiently and exploiting market loopholes. They are known for locking up their good, young players long-term and early, and so they are known for Evan Longoria. Two things that are often right at the start of this conversation, pitching depth and developing young pitching depth, are where they face one of the toughest questions the franchise has yet had to ask itself. How do you replace a David Price?
The Rays have a veritable stable of young arms in the organization that project as above-average starters. Matt Moore‘s promising debut has yet to give way to consistent and sustainable success, and Jeremy Hellickson is on the DL when he’d much rather be proving himself after a down year in 2013, but that does not mean that the Rays have found themselves with no-one to step into Price’s very large footprints when he is inevitably traded as he nears free agency. In 2012, Alex Cobb was looking to build on a strong 52.2 inning debut the year before. He’d put up a mid-threes ERA, but the water didn’t hold up on that. Cobb pitched well in his 136.1 innings in 2012, his 7.00 K/9 and 2.64 BB/9 are both fine for a starter, but his 4.03 ERA was the picture of a pitcher who’d run across some bad luck. Last year, Cobb came back with a vengeance. Though he missed some time after a terrifying incident involving a comebacker and his face, Cobb posted a 2.76 ERA in the 22 starts he was able to make. His 143.1 innings meant that, in one less start, he threw 7 more innings than in his rookie campaign. Cobb mixes a four-seamer and a sinker with a curveball and one of the best changeups in the Majors to achieve an excellent groundball rate (55.8% last year!) and he keeps his walks acceptably low with improving command to both sides of the plate. His curveball is a pretty average offering that he’s thrown more and more as time went on, but pitch f/x values don’t like it very much no matter how much he mixes it in. His change is his bread and butter, however, for good reason and Cobb uses it incredibly effectively.
Chris Archer made headlines yesterday, signing a contract that could wind up looking like shades of Longoria before long after committing 6 years and 25 million dollars to the young hurler. Archer gets financial security that could last a lifetime and the team gets cost certainty and a couple of extra years of control at a bargain-basement price. The 25-year-old runner-up for the AL Rookie of the Year in 2013, Archer was superb in his followup to a slightly disappointing 29.1 inning debut in 2012. He mixed a four-seam and two-seam fastball along with a stellar slider and not-so-stellar changeup on his way to a 7.06 K/9, a 2.66 BB/9 and a 3.22 ERA. The 6’3″ 200 pound righty throws hard, and doesn’t have Cobb’s groundballs, but their numbers are eerily similar.
Steamer and ZiPS project Cobb to far outperform Archer this year, but both are projecting his strikeout rate to continue to build quite slowly. Archer throws pretty hard (94 mph average velocity) and struck out only slightly less guys in the minors than Cobb did. Both their walk rates are similar and I doubt many would be surprised to see Archer have a similar leap in his strikeout rate this year that Cobb had last year when his rose by nearly a batter and a half per inning. If Archer were to make such a leap and surpass the expectations for him this year, it would not be a shock. Excellent velocity, good control and a devastating out-pitch tend to be the recipe for success for a young Rays’ pitcher.
It would be fair, right this moment, to prefer to answer the question posed by the title of this post, with “Alex Cobb, due to the extra year of track record to project from, his groundball tendencies, and his changeup being slightly more elite than Archer’s slider.” I would not disagree with you, though I’d comment that you sound like me and that I’d have said the same, but it may not be so cut and dry in a year’s time. Really, the takeaway from this article shouldn’t be that the Rays need someone to replace David Price at all. The real lesson here is that the Rays have developed near carbon copies of the ideal pitcher at an alarming rate. They are well known to be a very forward-thinking organization that incorporates any and every advantage they can into their coaching and analysis methods, and something they are doing is clearly working. The Rays don’t need anyone to step into David Price’s cleats, the Rays may not be rich but they will find enough cleats for all their incredible young starters. They aren’t just trading David Price soon because he’s getting expensive; they’re trading David Price soon because, terrifyingly, they might not need him that badly. Of course, any team would be better with one David Price than it’d be without one, all other things equal, but the Rays just simply don’t have 25 million plus needs for him. I look forward to reading in 5 years about who on Earth will step into Alex Cobb and Chris Archer’s shoes when they inevitably become replaced by more fruits from the Tampa Bay pitching bush.