Rays keep growing arms down on their farm
Organization's unique pitching depth helps cushion blow of losing Price
ST. PETERSBURG -- David Price went down, Jake Odorizzi came up, and life goes on with the Rays.
When Price felt a twinge in his left triceps in the third inning of his May 15 start against the Red Sox, the Rays quickly removed him from the game. Subsequently, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner was placed on the 15-day disabled list.
Funny thing was, Tampa Bay didn't go into panic mode.
Any team with a pitcher like Price is going to feel the loss. Clearly, the Rays are a better team with him than without. But unlike most teams, Tampa Bay is able to withstand the loss based on the long line of arms that runs through the organization like one continuous thread.
With Price on the shelf, the Rays simply tapped into that deep farm system to recall Odorizzi as his replacement. The 23-year-old right-hander, who was acquired from the Royals in the James Shields trade, started on Monday against the Blue Jays, and from all appearances, he should be able to hold his own while Price is away.
Odorizzi's example serves as a microcosm of why Tampa Bay believes that nothing is more precious to a Major League organization's success than pitching depth.
"Andrew [executive vice president of baseball operations Friedman] and I were talking in the offseason, and you try to put the whole thing together, the word depth comes up in every conversation," manager Joe Maddon said. "You need to have that.
"We are not going to go out and purchase the guy [through free agency]. Further, it's nice to have a younger guy who is on the verge of being that next guy, as opposed to somebody who has been around awhile, who may have some potential problems -- physical problems. The fact we have all these different options is just something we nurture. That's front office and Andrew and the scouts, that's all on them."
In addition to Odorizzi, the Rays currently have three other starting pitchers at Triple-A Durham that plenty of Major League teams would love to have in their rotation now: Chris Archer, Alex Torres and Alex Colome. Even teams that have the money don't have four guys who could come in and do a respectable job replacing Price. Why then is Tampa Bay the seemingly enlightened organization?
"It's probably not easy to do, it's not easy to do," Maddon said. "But we know we have to. We know we have to operate that way, and so we really make a conscious effort to make sure that it happens."
Why don't more teams try to emulate what the Rays do since their approach seems to work so well?
"I don't know, maybe they do," Maddon said. "Maybe, we were just lucky getting the right names and the right players. We've been very fortunate to get a lot of good young players. And I think a lot of that is scouting. Part of it is the way we develop them, but a lot of it goes to scouting in general, too."
Top-tiered free-agent pitchers are never going to be found on Tampa Bay's radar.
"I just think that we know that we have to grow our own, because it's hard to go out and be able and purchase at a reasonable amount of money what you're looking for," Maddon said. "It's normally overpriced. And a lot of times, it doesn't work out. We feel strongly that we have to develop our own pitching. We've done that. We have to continue to do that to be competitive. If we have to rely on the market for that, we're going to suffer."
A youthful pitching staff looks so attractive that one is prone to wonder if there is a downside to the approach.
"Well, the downside, obviously, is lack of experience on occasion," Maddon said. "But it's also very exciting to have that kind of physical ability and this room for growth. And a lot of that would be tied into whether you have a willing student or not.
"But for the most part, we've had willing students also. I find it very exciting when we break in a young pitcher with good stuff with a high ceiling."
|"I don't even know if I was doing that in the Minor Leagues, or if it was just a nervous habit when I got up here. But yeah, that was a nice dose of reality telling big league hitters what pitch was coming. They like that."|
|-- Alex Cobb|
The Rays' long line of pitching depth can look really long if you are one of the pitchers in the Minor Leagues waiting in line. Particularly, when you know you are ready to pitch in the Major Leagues. But patience can be a virtue.
"You want to be up here, but at the same time, you don't want to get rushed up here and get up here, and just get crushed the first four or five starts," Jeremy Hellickson said. "There are a lot of development stages in the Minor Leagues and Triple-A. That's probably the biggest step, from Double-A to Triple-A. It's not too much of a difference. Triple-A to here is a drastic difference. I think the more time you're down in Triple-A, the better. Obviously, they would love to be here. But there's always something to work on."
Hellickson, who won virtually every award for being one of the top Minor Leaguers in baseball prior to joining Tampa Bay, now appreciates how the organization handled his baseball education, particularly the step from Triple-A to the Majors.
"You can't really explain how big of a step it is," Hellickson said. "It's just the hitters are a lot better. They don't swing at too many pitches outside the zone. They make you throw a lot of pitches and work the counts. They wait for their pitch. And usually if they get it, they don't miss it. A lot of times in the Minor Leagues, you can make that mistake and it will get fouled off. They don't miss too many pitches up here."
But when asked specifically what the biggest difference between Triple-A and the Major Leagues was, Hellickson did not say the hitters. Instead, he allowed himself a chuckle before responding: "Honestly, the strike zone, it got a lot smaller."
Alex Cobb received an education on what can happen when a young pitcher gets brought up to the Major Leagues and is not quite ready. In his Major League debut on May 1, 2011, against the Angels, the Rays discovered he was tipping his pitches.
"That was a big eye-opener," Cobb said. "I wish I didn't have to learn that lesson in the big leagues. I don't even know if I was doing that in the Minor Leagues, or if it was just a nervous habit when I got up here. I don't know. But yeah, that was a nice dose of reality telling big league hitters what pitch was coming. They like that."
Young pitchers in the organization might get frustrated about their plodding pace moving through the organization, but most eventually understand why the Rays operate the way they do.
"Here they have to hold on to everybody as long as possible and they have to have that insurance, that backup plan at Triple-A," Cobb said. " ... You kind of realize the way this organization works.
"People told me when I was coming up, too: 'Put your time in and your time will come.' And you don't believe it. But once you get here, you want to tell them the same thing. 'It's true, your time is going to come here. They have a plan for you. The sooner you understand it, the better it's going to be.' But it's kind of hard to grasp that."
Pitching coach Jim Hickey is aware of how discouraged a pitcher can get when he's Major League-ready, but not pitching in the Majors.
"But I also think that everybody realizes how it works, and sometimes the system that's in place works to your benefit, and sometimes it works to your detriment," Hickey said. "And sometimes you deserve to be there and you're not, and other times you don't deserve to be there and you are because of circumstances beyond your control. But I think the players, especially our players, are smart enough and wise enough to know how things work, and they accept it. It's not easy all the time, but that's what makes this a good organization."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.