Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Expect Rays starting pitching to excel again

Here's what you can expect from the starting pitcher: Success.

For the Tampa Bay Rays, anything else is inconceivable.

Tomorrow, and every other day, you can expect the starting pitcher to walk to the mound as if he owns it. You can expect him to establish the fastball early, and to be successful in his cat-and-mouse game with the hitter. You can expect him to keep runs off the scoreboard. You can expect him to win.

Why?

Because that's what Rays pitchers do.

For Tampa Bay, it has been that way for six seasons now. The Rays are always among the best rotations in the game. Everyone has double-digit wins. Everyone keeps the team close.

Oh, the faces change. Matt Garza becomes Matt Moore, and James Shields turns into Alex Cobb, and Edwin Jackson becomes Jeff Niemann who turns into Roberto Hernandez. But the success is passed along like a chalice that is handed down from generations.

Consider: Over the past six years, the Rays have allowed only 3,911 runs, the fewest by an American League team since 1975-80, when the Yankees allowed 3,370 and the Orioles allowed 3,659. Over the past six years, the Rays have led the American League in fewest runs, best ERA (3.74) and lowest opposing batting average (.242), and OPS (.698).

In six years, the Rays rotation has had a staggering 27 starters win double-digit games. Together, that bunch has won 408 games.

And here they come again.

There is no stronger reason to believe the Rays will be good again than their starting rotation. It is the foundation of this franchise, the assumption that, every day, the starting pitcher gives the team a chance to win. Oh, you have to mix in the defense, and the bullpen, and just enough offense. But pretty much, the Rays have turned the American League into an arms race. And their arms usually give them a chance.

It starts, again, with David Price who, surprisingly, is still in a Rays uniform. That should be a comfort to everyone who follows the Rays, because at 28, Price should be at the top of his game. Arm troubles limited Price to 10 victories last year, but after July 2, he had a 2.53 ERA. Yes, he's still the pitcher that the others look to for leadership.

After that comes Alex Cobb, who won 11 last year. And Matt Moore, who won 17. And Chris Archer, who won nine. Jake Odorizzi fills out the rotation, at least until Jeremy Hellickson, who won 12, returns.

Now consider this: Price is 28 years old. Cobb and Hellickson are 26. Archer is 25. Moore and Odorizzi are 24.

Yeah, it's a boy band, still churning out the hits.

This is the foundation of the Rays' success. Their No. 1 is usually better than the other team's No. 1. And their No. 2. And their No. 3. And so forth. The Rays rotation wears the other team down.

If there is a challenge for the Rays this year, it is going to be for their pitchers to go deeper into games and to preserve what promises to be a very good bullpen. That didn't happen often enough last year. Hellickson went fewer than five innings in 11 of his starts. Archer went fewer than five in 10 of his. And even Moore went fewer than five nine times.

That's too many early finishes for comfort. This year, the Rays have to hope that another season of maturity cuts those numbers down significantly.

"Obviously, when your starters are going deep, things are going well for you,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "The real positive is that it puts less stress on your bullpen. It's about eating innings from the starters and saving innings from the bullpen and that equals success.''

So what can you expect? Price should again be among the best pitchers in the American League. Every other year, he seems to figure in the Cy Young race. In 2010, he was second. In 2012, he won it. This year, it's fair to assume he'll win 18.

Cobb? A line drive to the skull interrupted his season last year, but at times, he was the Rays' finest pitcher. Fifteen wins should be possible.

Moore finished last year with 17 wins. He'll be hard pressed to repeat that, but 14 should be possible.

Archer won his nine games on only 23 starts. Given another seven or eight, he should finish with a dozen wins.

Odorizzi? It's hard to project, and who knows what happens to the rotation when Hellickson returns. Conservatively, give them eight wins each.

In other words, this rotation should be solid again. And the Rays, as a team, should be pretty good.

After all, every night is going to be a sermon on the mound.

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