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May 16, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Price is Not Right

by Zachary Levine

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The Wednesday Takeaway
The traditional rules of pitching depth aren’t supposed to apply to the Tampa Bay Rays, the story goes. If one of the young homegrown arms goes down to injury or if one ceases to be affordable, you just order another part from the factory in Durham, N.C., and repeat as necessary.

That theory is really being tested this year. In April, they broke a 1,207-game streak of not using a starting pitcher signed as a major-league free agent when they needed to go scraping for Roberto Hernandez to replace James Shields.

And now, the thing no Rays fan wanted to hear and no baseball fan should have wanted to hear: David Price is hurt. There was no real grimace, nothing shocking, just a shake or two of the left arm and a couple of squeezes of the left hand. That he threw no pitches to test it was a bad sign.

The diagnosis was a pretty generic “triceps tendinitis,” which can be anything from skipping a turn through the rotation to major surgery on the horizon with plenty of Josh Johnson-style middle ground, so it’s a little soon to speculate. But the Rays have already been struggling in the rotation, and this would be an enormous blow.

Most of the concerns, even after trading Shields and Wade Davis, remained on offense, but that’s where the Rays have been fine. Evan Longoria has been great, and James Loney has risen from nowhere to provide an extremely capable six weeks, though one is ever sure how predictive that is.

It’s been on the mound where they have uncharacteristically struggled. With their 9-2 loss to Boston Wednesday night, the Rays have now allowed 4.51 runs per game, putting them 10th out of 15 American League clubs in raw run prevention. (Their typical ballpark factors actually help the staff, so they’ve done worse than it appears.)

So now it’s back to Durham, where Jake Odorizzi, acquired in the Shields/Davis trade, is on the same rotation cycle as Price and would be good to make the next start. Odorizzi has been very difficult to hit, with 28 allowed in 44 2/3 innings and part of a combined no-hitter. He has endured sporadic walk problems but has good overall numbers in that department, with 15 walks and 47 strikeouts in 45 2/3 Triple-A innings. The issue is whether Tampa wants to pile on the service time early, as Odorizzi’s Super Two cutoff comes a couple weeks before the usual one because of his brief stint with the Royals in late 2012. To avoid that, they could cap his innings and send him down at year’s end or when Price comes back.

Or they could call up Chris Archer, another high-strikeout minor leaguer, albeit a year-and-a-half older and a little more seasoned at the major-league level; he had a decent six-game run in St. Pete last year.

The big story will eventually be what becomes of Price and his long-term future. An extension always seemed like a longer shot than what the other top pitching prospects like Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander have done, and one Clayton Kershaw might agree to. Now any thought of that is on hold, as Tampa Bay nervously waits for some medical good news.

Matchup of the Day
If Yu Darvish is the unstoppable force, which he has been on more than one occasion this year, then the immovable object would be Omar Infante.

Wait, you mean Miguel Cabrera, right? Or Prince Fielder? Or Torii Hunter?

No, the matchup that could prove the most fun in this titanic matchup of Darvish and Verlander is the American League leader in strikeouts vs. one of the hardest players in the league to strike out. Infante entered Tuesday’s action third in the American League with strikeouts in 8.8 percent of his plate appearances.

Lowest K rate, AL:
Nick Markakis (BAL), 6.7%
Maicer Izturis (TOR), 8.0%
Omar Infante (DET), 8.8%
Alcides Escobar (KC), 9.4%
Ian Kinsler (TEX), 9.4%

So it’s not the best list in terms of overall production, but Infante should be a fascinating matchup for Darvish. The right-hander is particularly tough on righties like Infante, whom teams go to great lengths to avoid using against him. Righties have struck out in 40 of 89 plate appearances vs. Darvish (44.9 percent), while for lefties, it’s 40 of 116 (34.4 percent).

Historically, Infante has not been much of a first-pitch swinger—24 percent lifetime and lower this year, according to Baseball-Reference, vs. a 28 percent major-league average over that time—so that might not work out in his favor. But Darvish is just brutal on hitters late in counts with his breaking ball, and Infante is awfully hard to finish off, which will make these meetings fascinating chess matches.

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • One would think this would just be the latest hurdle placed in front of Jon Niese, who is having a miserable season (5.93 ERA, 22 walks, 21 strikeouts in 41 innings) after a modest 2012 breakout. But within the daunting task of facing the scorching NL Central leaders is the fact that the Cardinals aren’t wonderful against lefties, hitting just .226/.304/.346 for 13th in the league. Still, even with a good start, Niese has a long way to go before he can be considered fixed. The list of qualified starters with more walks than strikeouts currently numbers one (1:45 p.m. ET).
     
  • Speaking of starters with ugly numbers, Matt Cain hits Coors Field looking for a third straight strong start to continue his May recovery from an unsightly April. Of course, the thing about Cain is that he has actually been mostly fine. Cain sports a .287 on-base average against and a fine ratio of 43 strikeouts to 14 unintentional walks, but 10 home runs have been his downfall. Five of those have come on four-seamers, which are coming in at a career-low 91.51 mph. Meanwhile, Cain has increasingly gone to the slider, especially to righties, as his fastball velocity has dropped.

    Year

    FB to RHH

    SL to RHH

    2010

    63%

    17%

    2011

    53%

    23%

    2012

    48%

    26%

    2013

    42%

    34%


    Whether or not he sticks with the slider, that home run tendency will be put to the test again at Coors (8:40 p.m. ET).
  • Francisco Liriano was superb in his first start for the Pirates, walking two and striking out nine while giving up only a run in 5 1/3 innings. The encore comes today against Milwaukee, as the Pirates look to take three out of four. It’s a very important stretch of schedule for the Pirates to be racking up wins as they chase the Cardinals and Reds. After the fourth against Milwaukee, they get three with Houston, three at the Cubs, and then three at Milwaukee. One could certainly see them poking their heads into first at some point of that stretch before a brutal next 10 against Detroit, Cincinnati, and Atlanta (7:05 p.m. ET).

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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