One of the main topics of conversation this winter will be, I’m sure, how to acquire some new starting pitchers. Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez are unlikely to be back, and the Mariners will continue their annual offseason pursuit of starting pitching.
Everyone knows the normal suggestions. Throw big money at a free agent (which, in this years case is, I don’t know, Carlos Silva?). Trade for an established frontline starter, even though those guys are almost never available. I’m sure you’ll hear names like Dontrelle Willis mentioned in rumors because, after all, everyone knows who he is.
However, I’d like to offer an alternate option, and one that will could make the casual fan write me off as a blithering idiot – make a deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for one of their excess arms, because they’ve got more good starting pitchers than they have rotation slots.
Yes, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They have too many quality starting pitchers. Really. I’m not kidding.
You probably know that the Devil Rays 2007 starting rotation has the 3rd worst ERA in the American League this year, posting a 5.15 ERA that is only better than the performances by the Seattle and Texas starters. Whenever people talk about the good young talent in Tampa, they always bring up B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, and Delmon Young, so the perception is that the team can hit but not pitch.
Well, perception is not reality, especially in this case. The Devil Rays, as we’ve mentioned before, have the worst defense in baseball and one of the worst in recent history. They’re absolutely abysmal at turning balls in play into outs. They’ve used guys out of position in up-the-middle positions for significant portions of the year, and while it gave them a good chance to evaluate what guys can and can’t do, it also sabotaged their pitching staff.
But, if we evaluate their starters (bullpens not included in these numbers) by fielding independent metrics, we see that they’ve actually pitched pretty well this year.
Team BB/9 K/9 HR/9 FIP LAA 2.83 6.97 0.90 3.90 CLE 2.21 5.64 0.92 4.01 BOS 2.83 6.92 0.98 4.02 OAK 2.99 5.93 0.89 4.16 TBD 2.99 7.63 1.18 4.21 MIN 2.34 6.58 1.23 4.30 NYY 3.11 5.66 0.92 4.30 TOR 2.80 6.39 1.17 4.40 CHW 2.59 6.14 1.20 4.43 SEA 3.11 5.83 1.10 4.53 BAL 4.07 7.02 1.09 4.57 DET 3.27 6.33 1.21 4.64 KCR 3.16 5.28 1.13 4.71 TEX 4.33 5.68 1.16 5.06
That’s right – the Devil Rays starters have the fifth best Fielding Independent ERA in the American League, ahead of Detroit, Minnesota, New York, and Toronto, all of whom are considered to have playoff caliber starting pitching. Yes, I’d have rather used xFIP for the comparison, but I don’t have team GB/FB/LD totals, and in this case, it doesn’t matter, since xFIP would tell the same story. This is despite going through the first couple of months with Casey Fossum and Jae Seo getting regular turns in the rotation. Those guys have since been replaced by actual major league quality arms, and while it may still seem tough to believe, the Devil Rays have a very good rotation.
Everyone knows about Scott Kazmir and James Shields. But it doesn’t stop there. Andy Sonnanstine, Jason Hammel, Edwin Jackson, and J.P. Howell have thrown a combined 390 innings and posted a 4.74 FIP/4.75 xFIP. Those are solid numbers for the 3/4/5 spots in a rotation, especially considering their cost. And, of course, that gives the Devil Rays six arms for five 2008 rotation spots, and it doesn’t leave room for top pitching prospect Jeff Niemann, who is essentially major league ready after succeeding in Triple-A and staying healthy this year.
Counting Niemann, the Devil Rays will enter spring training with seven guys worthy of a rotation spot, none of them older than 26, and all of them making peanuts. And they’ll have two more top prospect arms starting the year in Double-A or Triple-A, knocking on the door to the majors, in Jake McGee and Wade Davis, along with moderately interesting Chris Mason, who could be next year’s Andy Sonnanstine.
That is an abundance of pitching depth, almost all of it certain to be undervalued by the market, and a chance to acquire a quality young arm with a better future than a past. No, you’re not going to get Kazmir or Shields, but that’s okay – pick up one of Sonnanstine, Howell, Jackson, or Hammel (with Howell getting my vote as the primary target), and your rotation is instantly better, younger, and you’ve managed to keep your money to improve other areas of the club.