By Marc Normandin
It wasn't all that long ago that the Rays had all three of David Price, James Shields and Matt Garza in their rotation. Various occurrences conspired to keep them from ever being as productive together as that looks through the lens of today, but it was a rotation with loads of talent and loads of promise. The Rays have a chance to try that style of rotation once more, built from the draft and through trades that brought back prospects, and this time around there are plenty of reasons to believe it will work to its potential.
The three arms who will form a similar core for the Rays are Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Alex Cobb. Both Moore and Cobb were drafted by the Rays, while Archer was acquired in a trade, much the same way Garza was -- coincidentally. Archer came to the Rays when the Garza was dealt to the Cubs from Tampa Bay. Before getting into why they have the chance to succeed in a way that the trio they're replacing did not, however, we need to see what happened to Garza, Shields and Price that kept them from their potential.
The main concern was one of timing: Price didn't become a full-time starter in the majors until he was 23 in 2009. While that's not late for that to happen by any stretch, contextually, it didn't work well for having this trio together for an extended period of time, as Garza was dealt following the 2010 season, giving Price little time as an experienced big-league starter alongside the other two. In 2009, the three were good, but they didn't blow anyone away: Price finished with 23 starts and an average-ish 98 ERA+, while Garza and Shields combined for an impressive 422 innings and 65 starts with ERA+ of 110 and 105, respectively. The 2010 season should have been the one where the three dominated as a 1-2-3 punch, and Price certainly did his part by catapulting to a 144 ERA+, over 200 innings, and a second-place finish in the AL Cy Young vote. Garza was good, not great, however, once again reaching the ever-valuable 200-inning mark but finishing with a 100 ERA+, while Shields struggled thanks to one-time problems with home runs that pushed his ERA over five: while he too recorded over 200 frames, he had a below replacement level season overall thanks to how unproductive those innings were.
Following that campaign, Garza was dealt, leaving Shields and Price to sit atop the rotation. Shields rebounded to produce the greatest season of his career, recording a 134 ERA+ with an absurd 249 innings, and while Price slipped back, he still managed a 108 ERA+ and an excellent 224 frames. Jeremy Hellickson stepped in to outproduce Garza's last few campaigns, but his performance did not seem sustainable in the long run. Following the 2012 season, Shields was traded to the Royals with two years left on his deal, bringing back top prospect Wil Myers as well as pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi. David Price was the last one standing, and the Rays spent much of the last offseason trying to trade him in a Shields-esque mega deal.
The Rays' model involves attempting to lock up their young players, and dealing the ones they cannot at a time when they can bring back top value. Garza was traded to the Cubs because they were willing to give up not only Chris Archer, but also shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer. Shields was affordable for the Rays still, but his two remaining years of control were converted into one of the game's best hitting prospects as well as a pitching prospect who could be a low-cost mid-rotation arm for a team always in search of those. If someone had been willing to give up the right package for the last two years of David Price's team control, he would be in another uniform right now. (As he's not in another uniform, though, remember that for 2014 purposes, they've got their future three key arms plus Price to lean on.)
This model works wonderfully for the Rays, who succeed enough that they don't have the enviable draft position of their younger days as an organization. They refill the system with key prospects by dealing these established, relatively costlier players. With the way they're currently doing things in the rotation, however, they might not need to do this for quite some time. Unlike Garza, Shields, and Price, only one of whom signed a team-friendly deal, the Rays have already locked up both Moore and now Archer, and it's easy to believe that Cobb can't be far behind.
Moore signed a five-year, $14 million deal almost immediately after joining the majors. Following just a handful of relief appearances and a playoff start, Moore had all of his pre-arb years bought out by the Rays, as well as a couple of arbitration seasons, with the last of them as well as two free agent years becoming club options. While Moore's deal guarantees only $14 million, it could turn into up to an eight-year, $40 million contract should the Rays pick up all of the options, and those could also become slightly more lucrative depending on if he reaches certain incentives. The Rays don't have to lose Moore until after 2019, and even at its most expensive, his deal is incredibly team-friendly, especially when you consider that he's all of 24 right now with a career 108 ERA+, coming off of his best campaign.
Archer agreed to a six-year, $25 million deal with two club options totaling around $20 million on Wednesday. It also buys out two years of free agency, and since it begins now, can keep Archer with the Rays hrough 2021 should they so choose. Archer has only 158 major-league innings, but he owns a 110 ERA+ as well as an impressive minor-league track record, and is also just 25 years old. The Rays have him and Moore locked up through what should be their peak years, as well as a few more, and all at absurdly reasonable prices.
Cobb isn't locked up yet, but even without an extension, he's under team control through 2017. At 26, he's the eldest of the trio, but he's also coming off of a breakout 2013 campaign in which he posted a 138 ERA+ over 22 starts and 143 innings (a line drive to the head cut his season short). Unlike with Garza, Shields and Price, who were all Rays at different time periods in their career and therefore were (or will be) packaged off one after the other, Tampa Bay will get to enjoy seeing Moore, Archer and Cobb form a lengthy core for their rotation, and at a price the Rays can get behind.
That's not to say they'll be Rays for the duration of their deals. Those club options at the end could be tantalizing to other teams just like Shields was, and if the right deal comes up and the Rays need the prospects, they'll be listening. They could also be dealt off, one after the other, in order of how soon their deals expire. With Cobb under contract for another three years, however -- and that's pre-extension, as that could still happen -- we shouldn't see this trio broken up for a while.
It will be difficult for any of the three to replicate what Price has accomplished, as he's a Cy Young winner who has managed a few other Cy-worthy campaigns in his career. You can see a lot of James Shields in Alex Cobb, however, and Chris Archer has the stuff to be the pitcher teams and fans have always wanted Matt Garza to be. Moore has the potential to be a frontline pitcher, and if he can continue to build on his 2013 campaign, it will be perfectly fine if he doesn't replicate what Price has given Tampa Bay, because he'll still be accomplishing more than most. The key is that these three could very well end up being a better -- and longer running -- version of the Rays trio that sounds so impressive these days, but in practice never put it together. Moore, Archer and Cobb will get the chance to work together that the pitchers they're replacing did not, however, and that's great news for the Rays' future.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.