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One of the biggest jobs facing Tampa’s new management is to build a pitching staff. Andrew Friedman has cited a strategy of opportunism and flexibility, looking to stockpile valuable players rather than forcing themselves to, say, sign Scott Elarton now just because they don’t want Doug Waechter in the rotation. So while the pitching is still in relative shambles, the Rays won’t likely be locking themselves into bad contracts anytime soon for the sake of marginal improvement. This is a good thing.

At the same time, we must be realistic with the pitching predicament. Rays hurlers with negative VORPs outnumbered the positive 12-9, and we could lop off the damage wrought by Hideo Nomo (-16.8 VORP) and the staff still wouldn’t pass that pesky “replacement-level” meter. Below are the Rays’ havoc-wreakers of 2005, conveniently available in BP’s sortable stats database.

  • Dewon Brazelton, 71.0 IP, -19.2 VORP: Traded to San Diego for Sean Burroughs, Brazelton epitomized disappointment in his brief Tampa career, and for the Rays, clearing his wreckage off the books in favor of just about anyone could equal roughly two wins. (If Burroughs contributes anything, it’s cream.) This season, Brazelton was knocked around in the Majors for the first month and a half, which earned him a demotion. He then went AWOL for three weeks over what he claims was a custody dispute. After finally showing up to do mediocre work in Durham, he rejoined his Tampa teammates and was literally shunned for another month and a half, equally bad in a reduced role. Another demotion, a suspension from a brawl, and two relief drubbings in September capped his nightmare season. The 60 walks in 71 innings speak volumes. We here at Baseball Prospectus wish Mr. Brazelton all the best in San Diego.
  • Hideo Nomo, 100.7 IP, -16.8 VORP: Nomo was cut loose in July, and isn’t coming back. Another one to two wins for Tampa by his mere absence.
  • Seth McClung, 109.3 IP, -14.3 VORP: The walk rates and the 20 home runs allowed are troubling, but 92 strikeouts is a plus. McClung still hasn’t turned 25 and he did miss a year to Tommy John in 2003. The Rays were cautious, nurturing his elbow back to full strength in the pen, and after a couple minor league stints he emerged as a full-time starter in June. The splits:
                   IP    H   HR   BB   SO   ERA
    Apr/May (RP)  18.7  22    1   19   15  11.09
    June on (SP)  90.7  84   19   43   77   5.66

    Again, nothing too special. But if he can cut down on the home runs, 2005 could be a building block.

  • Travis Harper, 73.3 IP, -10.9 VORP: Another poster child for flaky relief pitchers, Harper struggled mightily after steady years in 2003 and 2004. A June appearance at Yankee Stadium inflated his ERA by over a run, but that doesn’t explain everything. He’s back for 2006; hopefully the team can pinpoint what went wrong.
  • Mark Hendrickson, 178.3 IP, -10.6 VORP: He’s already 31, and this was his worst season to date. That is saying something. The tight control (career 2.4 BB/9) and durability (91 starts in three years) is impressive for an NBA journeyman. Hendrickson probably won’t last as the Rays creep closer to contention, but for now, his job is safe.
  • Rob Bell, 25.0 IP, -8.9 VORP: Out of the picture since May.
  • Doug Waechter, 157.0 IP, -7.4 VORP: Waechter improved most of his peripherals in 2005–if you want to call it a “growth year,” that’s your prerogative. He’s still got a lot to prove. Brazelton was eighth on Waechter’s list of PECOTA comparable pitchers last winter.
  • John Webb, 4.0 IP, -5.4 VORP: Signed with the Cardinals.
  • Lee Gardner, 7.3 IP, -4.3 VORP: Near non-factor last year, likely the same in ’06.
  • Franklin Nunez, 5.0 IP, -2.8 VORP: Ditto.
  • Jon Switzer, 4.0 IP, -1.4 VORP: Another Tommy John patient who must stay healthy and needs some more seasoning.
  • Tim Corcoran, 22.7 IP, -0.4 VORP: Modest success in Durham didn’t follow him to Tampa. He could mop up, but he’ll be 28 next year.

The good news: it probably can’t get any worse. This cesspool of sub-replacement pitching will naturally drain itself to some degree. Regression to the mean could make all the new people in Tampa look like miracle workers.

But the Rays don’t have much upper-level pitching on the way now that Scott Kazmir and Chad Orvella have made it. Depending on what Tampa does with Julio Lugo, Aubrey Huff, Joey Gathright, Toby Hall and Danys Baez, the staff could change dramatically in 2006. Friedman and Gerry Hunsicker might prefer talent to balance, but those players present a huge opportunity to reshape the pitching staff.

Dave Haller

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