Hello, it is now that time to analyze and project the Tampa Bay Rays and Atlanta Braves pitching rotations for the upcoming season. 2007 saw both teams being forced to mix it up during the year due to injuries and lackluster play. Now I believe both teams have improved on this end and fixed their rotations, but whereas the Braves had more questions about their batting order, the Rays have more pitching openings. Not wasting any more time, here are the 2008 pitchers for these teams:
Tampa Bay Rays:
1. Scott Kazmir – The ace of the Rays staff since his 2005 rookie year, Kazmir led the American League in strikeouts with 239 in 2007. His ERA has been 3.77, 3.24, and 3.48 the last three years, very respectable for a starter in this era. The 2006 All Star is the best known face of the Rays pitching staff, and with good reason. Though he still gives up a few too many walks and has high pitch counts that restrict has innings of work, and is at risk of arm injury, the Rays are taking no chances with him and he has still proven time and time again that he is a legitimate force on the mound, one of the top left handed pitchers in the game today. He can beat anybody else’s ace.
2. James Shields – This man is the clear-cut right handed staff ace, and fits in well at number two behind Kazmir. Shields was the Rays’ best pitcher during parts of last season. 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA, despite giving up 28 home runs (even Johan Santana allowed 33 HR), he walked just 36 hitters in 215 innings of work while showing near-pinpoint command. With a bullpen that won’t blow as many of his games, he is bound to become an even better pitcher as his prime years hit. He can strike guys out with his devastating changeup and complimentary fastball. Give him the ball in the big game, and he can take it.
3. Matt Garza – Acquired from Minnesota in the Delmon Young trade, Matt Garza is one of the better young pitchers in the Major Leagues and a lock at number three. In 16 games (15 starts) for the Twins in 2007, Garza showed his potential with a 3.69 ERA and 67 K in 83 innings, added to a similar stat line in AAA. He is ready for the big time now, and he will no longer have the pressure to be a top guy as he could have in Minnesota without Santana. He is like Kazmir in that he will use his fastball and slider to strike guys out, and he also has the determination to throw smarter, not harder, to get out of trouble. Now with three legitimately good starters, the Rays are much closer to contention with the big dogs in the American League East.
4. Edwin Jackson – Now this is where it gets difficult. There are several guys battling for two rotation spots, and nobody knows who will get them yet. But I’ve decided to put Edwin Jackson in at number four, and I have my reasons. He had a bad season in 2007, 5-15 with a 5.76 ERA, but considering that it was 7.77 at one point, that says something of his natural ability. He shut out the Texas Rangers and rolled through the powerful Yankees late last season, and if he can command his mid-90s fastball, he can get guys out. He had a good start to Spring Training, and I think he can’t get any worse from this point on. Only 24 years of age, he is still a prime prospect as a starter. Early projections only have him getting slightly better this season, so he can be shuttled down to number five if need be. He’s also out of options, which basically forces the Rays to keep him on the team.
5. Andy Sonnanstine – This was also a very difficult decision, with guys like Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell also vying for this spot. But of all three, it was actually Sonnanstine who had the best 2007 season (6-10, 5.85 in Tampa Bay; 6-4, 2.66 at Durham). He has the least bullpen experience of these guys, making his possible transition more difficult. Hammel and Howell have not proven enough potential as starters to justify earning this spot. In more good news, Sonnanstine’s projections have him improving to maybe a 4.70 ERA in 2008. I think he could be a very competent fifth starter–maybe not like the Boston Red Sox fifth starter, but a useful one anyway.
Bullpen: Troy Percival (Closer), Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, Gary Glover, Scott Dohmann, Trever Miller, Juan Salas, Grant Balfour (Maybe Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell)
1. John Smoltz – There was little guesswork involved here, and why should there be? I (and some others) may not agree with his personal views and beliefs, but that’s an off the field rant for an off the field place. For the Braves, John Smoltz has provided ace quality pitching dating all the way back to 1989. He was 14-8 with a very nice ERA of 3.11, one of the league’s best, in 2007 at age 40. Through Tommy John Surgery and team overhauls, he still has it. Many people still don’t see him falling off this season, myself included. He’s seen the biggest of pressure situations and pitched through the worst of times, so there is little doubt about his talent and composure. A first ballot Hall of Fame probability, Smoltz should continue his excellence as he anchors the mound in 2008. He can still beat any other pitcher out there, including Johan Santana.
2. Tim Hudson – Another ace quality guy and once a member of the A’s "Big Three," Tim Hudson enjoyed a renaissance in 2007, going 16-10 with a 3.33 ERA. As a veteran much like most of this pitching staff, Hudson has been there, done that, so to speak. He is a true star who has been unfortunately overlooked during his Atlanta tenure. He’s not much of a strikeout pitcher, but he keeps the ball on the ground (just 10 HR allowed last year) and leaves the work to a good defense. His 224.1 innings last year also proves that his pitch-to-contact style works well to buy time for his bullpen.
3. Tom Glavine – Welcome back, Tom. After spending five years with the enemy in New York, he has returned home to finish off his amazing career. Though he has fallen statistically and his fastball has lost velocity in recent years, Glavine still possesses a solid changeup that can get the best hitters out. He had a down year for the Mets in 2007 with his ERA at 4.45, but he has rebounded from off years before (1991, 2004), so with his leadership and experience, why couldn’t he do it again? He has nothing left to lose, and he’s back home where he belongs. I think his downfall last year can be attributed to his horrific ending to the season (his ERA was 3.88 before his final three starts), a little injury trouble, and the fact that maybe he just didn’t want to pitch for the Mets. (He took $5 million less to return to the Braves.) Glavine still has his ability to get people out and pitch 200 innings. I think he can still anchor a trio of left handers on the back end of this rotation and have at least one more good season.
4. Chuck James – James showed the world what he had to offer in 2006 (11-4, 3.78), but hit somewhat of a sophomore jinx last year, going 11-10 with a decent 4.24 ERA. The staff’s young gun at 26 years of age, James should be a very reliable fourth starter for Atlanta in 2008. A little pressure can be taken off by the three veterans in front of him and the strong bullpen–arguably the division’s best–behind him. So there is the potential for James to be a very solid pitcher in this role.
5. Mike Hampton – The wild card of the staff because of his well-documented injury troubles, Mike Hampton finally looks to be ready to return to active duty this year. He was very effective last time he pitched for the Braves in 2005 (3.50 ERA in 12 starts), and he has made significant strides going into 2008. Provided his talent stays with him, he would make an excellent fifth starter to scare other teams’ fourth and fifth guys, and even go head-to-head with some aces. It finally appears as if he is back and here to stay. Not much of a strikeout pitcher, he, like Hudson, is adept at keeping the ball on the ground. Maybe not so much at the plate, however–Hampton is a secret weapon as a hitter, with 15 career home runs and a .242 batting average to his credit.
Bullpen: Rafael Soriano (Closer), Peter Moylan, Mike Gonzalez (Upon return from arm surgery), Will Ohman, Manny Acosta, Tyler Yates, Royce Ring
That just about covers the Rays and Braves probable pitching rotations for the 2008 season. I think both teams stepped it up and improved from last year, especially Tampa Bay with Matt Garza and still-improving young arms. They’re very different, but can both contend on their best days. Until next time, go Rays and Braves.