There are the cold, hard realities with which the Rays deal, year in, year out, night in, night out. They began the season the only American League team to have won 90 games five of the last six seasons and the consensus pick of soothsayers and prognosticators to win the East in 2014, and by their third home game they only outdrew their Durham farm team by 88 paying customers.
And already, ten days later, they have lost Matt Moore to an elbow injury whose course of action is yet to be determined. Then Sunday, the day after Alex Cobb shut out the Reds in Cincinnati, Cobb was disabled with an oblique pull, minutes after Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos—whose team was ravaged by injuries the last two seasons—said, “the American League East has so much parity that it probably is going to be decided by health.”
The Red Sox are wondering the extent of Koji Uehara’s shoulder problems; everyone realizes that after becoming Boston’s closer last June, he had an historic season culminated by closing the World Series, and as he followed injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, that role’s precarious nature was re-emphasized, as it was this week when Uehara’s discomfort meant that none of the division 2013 closers were available to close this weekend. Boston was also without the invaluable Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks, the Orioles are without Manny Machado, the Yankees without David Robertson and Mark Teixeira, the Jays without Jose Reyes and Casey Janssen and now, the Rays without two starters in what appeared to be the best rotation in the league.
“The Yankees last year looked like their starting pitching was headed for formaldehyde,” says one advance scout. “Now they may have the best starters in the division, especially if Moore needs Tommy John Surgery.” Indeed, there are six starting pitchers in the division 25 or younger. Two of them are Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda. “Both of them,” says the scout, “could be front end power starters.”
Understand, the Cobb injury is huge. The Rangers faced him last Sunday with Yu Darvish, and while Darvish was brilliant, Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux said, “our guy was great, but to be fair, he wasn’t the best pitcher on the field that day. Cobb was unbelievable. He’s got to be one of the handful of best starters in the league.” A rival GM said Sunday morning, “Cobb is going to be right in the Cy Young Award discussion.” One rival manager concurred with the Rangers assessment that he is one of the half-dozen best starters in the league, and, as the manager added, “and that’s working on the same staff as David Price.”
Cobb’s fastball Saturday in Cincinnati sat 92-93, the location precise. “He’s very tough on both righthanders and lefthanders,” says one advance scout. “That split/change is so tough for hitters to lay off. It starts on a plane in the strike zone and he doesn’t make many mistakes with it. What also makes it unique is that he uses it to both sides of the plate against both righties and lefties. He uses it like a fastball, in and out. From behind the plate, you see the catcher set up inside, and you automatically think fastball, and often you’re wrong because he throws the split/change.
“Combine that with a deceptive delivery, a strike-stealing curveball, a very good sinker with a very good infield defense, and he’s one of the best pitchers around.”
Cobb has been part of what has become a Rays pitching tradition since he first got to the big leagues in 2011, a tradition that Joe Maddon has long traced to James Shields. Cobb’s first day on the road, his phone rang. Shields calling, asking what Cobb was doing. “Relaxing,” the rookie replied. “Nope, we’re going,” Shields told him, and took Cobb to the park to work out, throw and work on his changeup. “What Shields and Price pass on is invaluable,” says Andrew Friedman.
Now, it’s Cobb. In spring training, Chris Archer said “I think the biggest change I’m now making is using the changeup. Alex Cobb has worked with me, helped me develop it and convinced me to be convicted in throwing it.” The Rangers noticed that Jake Odorizzi threw more than a dozen killer split/changes against them. “I asked Jim Hickey how they all learn to throw that pitch,” said Maddux. “He said, ‘it started with Shields, now it starts with Cobb.”
Other than the necessity to work within a micro-budget structure, one of the remarkable things about the Rays and what they have accomplished beginning with the 2008 season is how much they have relied on trades to create a constant influx of young, affordable talent. They drafted Price with the first pick in the 2007 draft, a no-brainer. They selected Cobb in the fourth round of the 2006 draft. Moore was an eighth rounder. But Archer came in a deal for Matt Garza, Odorizzi came from the Royals in the trade for Shields. If Moore and Cobb are out for an extended period of time, the next starter may well by Nate Karns, acquired from the Nationals in the trade for Jose Lobaton, who was available when they were able to beat the Red Sox to a deal with Cincinnati for Ryan Hanigan.
What Tampa Bay also has to do is make calls on which young players they need to lock up to multi-year deals. It began with Longoria, who has since chafed at suggestions that he signed cheaply. Recently, they locked up Archer and Yunel Escobar. They did it with Moore, who signed a $14M deal some have called “team-friendly.”
“Contracts like that are chances on both sides,” says Friedman. “There are risks for each party, and we try to meet the risk halfway.”
Friedman does not particularly like the “team friendly” expression; players do not sign them except for guaranteed security or because they like the team, respect the administration and enjoy the city, which should also express that part of the deal is that management represents a “player-friendly team.” When, for instance, the Marlins insisted on renewing every player who wasn’t arbitration-eligible at a bottom rate. But we have seen cases where agents—and that “team-friendly” is about the reality that contracts are more important to agents than their players—have fought so hard against team-friendly deals that their client spent considerable time watching games from his home.
A lot has happened in a very short period of time in the AL East. Tanaka/Pineda and the development of Adam Warren and David Phelps as setup men has meaning in the Bronx. That after the pitching disaster of 2013, the Jays suddenly have Drew Hutchison and Dustin McGowan winning, Brandon Morrow adding a nasty changup to his great stuff, in addition to being healthy, and Sergio Santos filling in closing until Casey Janssen gets back (along with Reyes) in the next week completely changes the Jays. Grady Sizemore playing regularly and setting the chance that the stretch Boston outfield will be Victorino/Jackie Bradley, Jr./Sizemore which may be a defensive upgrade.
But the Yankees and Red Sox (thank you, Ryan Dempster) can spend on what they need come July. The Jays can, as well. Maybe the Orioles, as well.
The Rays cannot. At least until and if they’re outdrawing the Durham Bulls by 15,000 a night.