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Rays' young, developing rotation cause for 2015 optimism

Drew Smyly, dazzled by the Rays’ collection of young pitchers, is a key component at age 25.
Drew Smyly, dazzled by the Rays’ collection of young pitchers, is a key component at age 25.
Published Sep. 23, 2014

BOSTON — Sitting on the bench watching Alex Colome's solid start against the Yankees last week — which was a few days after Nathan Karns' even more impressive Rays debut — Drew Smyly turned to Alex Cobb in amazement with a question:

" 'Where do you get all these guys that can go seven shutout innings?' '' Cobb relayed. "I was like, 'The minor leagues. That's what we do. You didn't have that (in Detroit)?' And he's like, 'No, this is very abnormal.' ''

For the Rays, it is quite normal.

And extremely important.

Maintaining the stockpile of young starting pitching has been the main reason for their success over the previous six seasons, and even in the disappointment of this one, it is a prime cause for optimism looking ahead to 2015.

The Rays will return a solid foursome of Chris Archer, Cobb, Smyly and Jake Odorizzi (none older than 26), with Matt Moore, 25, coming off Tommy John surgery, expected to rejoin them sometime around June.

They'll weigh whether to bring back Jeremy Hellickson, 27, or fill in until then with some combination of Colome, 25, and Karns, 26 — who showed in shaky outings Sunday that they have some work to do — or one of the other arms coming through the minors.

"Moving forward, you don't win this whole thing without having that kind of depth," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's kind of an unusual situation. Then look at their birth certificates on top of that. So you've got a combination of depth, youth and a guy coming back off a severe injury that really makes it even thicker."

The core four should all be better next season, in experience, conditioning and performance. Archer and Odorizzi are completing their first full seasons in the majors, crossing that 30-plus starts barrier that is important to the development of a young starter. Cobb is finishing strong after having a second straight season interrupted by non-arm related injuries. Smyly was quite impressive before being shut down due to workload concerns.

"The development of these young guys, it's going to be kind of fun," Maddon said.

Smyly offers a good perspective on the Rays' stockpile, saying, "We're all young, we all feel like we haven't reached our peak yet, we're all still learning, growing, helping each other."

And how different that is than his former Tigers team, which was stocked with high-end and highly paid (a combined $59 million) starters such as Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello.

"Everybody over there is established, making lots of money, they've been doing it for a while," Smyly said. "Here it feels like we're all up and coming and it's only a matter of time until we break out and become those guys. So it's pretty cool watching it happen right in front of you."

The Rays got Smyly when they traded their latest ace, sending David Price to Detroit in July, similar to how they previously parted ways with James Shields and Wade Davis (getting Odorizzi from the Royals), Matt Garza (getting Archer from the Cubs), Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir and others.

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Cobb, Hellickson and Moore were Rays draft picks, while Colome came through their Dominican academy and Karns was acquired in a trade from Washington (for Jose Lobaton and two prospects).

"In spite of all the different things we've done regarding losing some people … it's really good stuff," Maddon said. "It really speaks to the job the front office has done, in combination with the minor-league development staff, to really augment this group up here."

After Smyly brought it up, Cobb started realizing that the Rays' "normal" is actually pretty special.

"It's crazy," Cobb said. "It's mind-boggling."

But, like he told Smyly, it's what they do.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.