30 Questions: Tampa Bay Rays

RaysWho will be the most valuable fantasy pitcher among Rays starters?

In a division with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees (or is it the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox?), sometimes it is easy to forget that there is another playoff-caliber team in the Tampa Bay Rays.

One can easily make the case that the Rays are a potential 90-win team, having won 97 games and advanced to the World Series two seasons ago, and 84 with a Pythagorean win-loss of 86 last year, with largely the same core of players on the roster today. That means there should be plenty of wins to go around for the pitching staff, making their top starter (or starters) quite valuable and perhaps underrated -- especially since not one Rays pitcher is being picked in the top 100 overall thus far in ESPN live drafts.

Ah, but which Rays starter will be their best? This is quite the contest.

Matt Garza

He's the one being picked highest on average (ADP 137.8), and he's also the one who finished last season highest on the Player Rater (135th). In two years with the Rays, he has a 3.83 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, and he also has a playoff-series Game 7 victory, beating the Red Sox in the 2008 American League Championship Series.

Why he's a candidate: Besides the obvious staff-leading rankings just mentioned, Garza is still just 26 years old with plenty of career ahead of him, and he did experience a nice boost in strikeouts last season (8.38 per nine).

James Shields

The Rays' scheduled Opening Day starter was their best starter in 2008, when he won 14 games with a 3.56 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, and he has the franchise's only World Series win (Game 2, 2008). But the problem is that Shields' performance regressed last season, and at this point he might be shaping up as more of a matchups type than an ace, thanks to a home ERA 1.38 lower than on the road in his career.

Why he's a candidate: One "bad" year should not erase the two strong ones before it, and he's still 28 years old, in his prime. His BABIP soared to .317 last season, after .292 in each of 2007 and 2008, which means some correction could be coming to his ERA and WHIP.

David Price

Hailed as the Rays' potential ace entering last season despite his rookie status, Price, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft, instead found himself mired in Triple-A ball for the first two months of 2009, being kept on strict, minimal pitch counts that had him averaging fewer than five frames per appearance. He did reach the majors in May, but failed to reach his full potential in 23 big league starts.

Why he's a candidate: Did we mention he was the No. 1 overall pick in 2007? Price has long been considered one of the game's most promising pitching prospects -- not with buzz the caliber of a Stephen Strasburg, mind you, but not far off it, either.

Jeff Niemann

He was the Rays' winningest pitcher last season, albeit with just 13, and his 3.94 ERA was tops among Tampa Bay starters. Niemann ranked among the team's most pleasant surprises, but he shouldn't have been an out-and-out shock, as he had been a somewhat promising prospect for years. After all, he was the fourth overall pick of the 2004 amateur draft, and he had a 3.58 career ERA in the minors.

Why he's a candidate: You don't have to be the pitcher with the most raw talent to be the best on your team, especially not on one that statistically projects all its starters to have value in the Nos. 2-3-4 range (in other words, lacking a true ace). Niemann is like the quiet, behind-the-scenes type -- the perfect sleeper who might sneak in there with another season to surprise you.

Wade Davis

He debuted last September with less hype than Price but more than Niemann, yet his performance in a six-start stint was arguably better than either of those two. Davis had a 3.72 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 36 K's in 36 1/3 innings and really struggled only in one start versus the Red Sox. The only problem: He's no lock to make the opening-day roster, needing to beat out Andy Sonnanstine for the fifth-starter role.

Why he's a candidate: He might have been picked two rounds later than Niemann in that 2004 draft, but he had the more stellar minor league career and is expected to develop into the better pitcher of the two in the long haul.

All these candidates, and a battle likely to go deep into the season, with the leader likely to change a couple times along the way. Feels like predicting which of the "Lost" candidates will end up replacing Jacob, doesn't it?

If you're a "Lost" fan, surely you know that the answer to that question will remain vague until as close to the end of the series as possible, and the answer might be the one you least expect, or at least probably not the most obvious one. Well, when it comes to Rays starters, my choice might not necessarily be the one you least expect (probably Niemann), but it also might not be the most obvious one (probably Garza).

David Price will be the Rays' best starter in 2010.

Now, let's clarify those words for a second before getting to the reasons why. Best starter doesn't necessarily mean the one you need to draft first, as Garza's ADP is currently three rounds ahead of Price's. Price has an average draft position of 169.4, so he might not be the first -- or potentially even second -- Rays pitcher off the board. Garza and Shields have appropriate ADPs for their talent levels, but it's Price who should finish highest on the 2010 Player Rater.

After all, Price is the pitcher scouts for years now have predicted as the future ace of the Rays' staff. Why can't that future begin now? As mentioned earlier, this is a staff made up entirely of pitchers who will be projected for values that range in the Nos. 2-3-4 range on a typical big league team. If Price is already projected in that group, how hard can it be to step up and claim ace status?

Price's critics will point to his 4.42 ERA, 3.79 walks-per-nine and 5.58 innings-per-start ratios, the latter ranking him 93rd of 117 pitchers with 20-plus starts, as reasons why he's far from realizing his full potential. He was largely inefficient during his rookie season and not nearly as overpowering an arm as he was during his minor league career and in three years at Vanderbilt.

But let's cut the guy a break, as the Rays didn't exactly pave him a path to immediate success early last season. In eight starts for Triple-A Durham, Price wasn't allowed to throw more than five innings once, no matter how effective he was in any given outing. He endured pitch counts regularly in the 70s, in a deliberate attempt by the Rays to preserve his arm for their own rotation later in the year. Sure enough, upon his recall in late May, Price seemed unprepared for the workloads required from a major league starter, averaging 95.4 pitches and 4.75 innings in his first eight starts, and walking 30 batters in 38 frames overall.

It's everything after that, however, that should excite Price's prospective fantasy owners.

In Price's final 15 starts of 2009, he was more stretched out, reaching averages of 101.1 pitches and 6.02 innings per start. His walks-per-nine ratio dropped, from the unsightly 7.11 in his first eight turns to a pleasant 2.39. And while his 4.08 ERA was a bit high for fantasy owners' tastes, a 1.20 WHIP and 70.4 percent strand rate might have hinted that his true talent resided at an ERA somewhat lower than that.

Nine of Price's final 15 turns were also quality starts, including two versus the Yankees, one against the Red Sox and three in road games, the latter a big deal for a pitcher whose full-season numbers had him 8-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 12 home starts, compared to 2-3 with a 6.24 ERA in 11 on the road. Price might have appeared to slip into Shields-like matchups territory heading into his sophomore season, but he did post a 3.91 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in his final four road starts, including trips to Detroit, New York, Baltimore and Texas, which is a rough schedule. Small sample size, yes, but it represents progress nonetheless.

Incidentally, if you're worried about Price's innings cap, it shouldn't be a huge issue. In his first professional season in 2008, he totaled 123 2/3 innings between the majors and minors, and last season his total was 162 2/3. At the same rate of increase, Price would finish with 201 2/3, which is right in line with most any starter except the most durable workhorses -- your Roy Halladay types. Expect the Rays to attempt to keep Price in the 180-190 range, but even at that he's more than capable of helping you without a significant worry of being shut down early.

So where might Price's ceiling reside? In a division this stacked, Cy Young votes probably aren't in his immediate future, though the best-case scenario might have him being considered a fringe contender heading into 2011. Our projection calls for a 3.94 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, but judging by his late-season progress in his rookie year, an ERA in the low threes with a WHIP of 1.20 or lower is possible. We're also projecting 28 starts and 160 innings, but it's possible he'll reach 30 and 200, meaning his counting numbers (wins and K's) would benefit.

That places the young lefty outside the top 20 starters, but not by a significant margin. Here's a curious thought: Clayton Kershaw and Brett Anderson, both 22 years old, are being picked 26th and 28th on average among starting pitchers. Who's to say Price can rival either of them in fantasy value in 2010?

Price's upside at the time of his big league debut was easily comparable to those two, and the only true difference right now is that each had a stronger 2009. Kershaw's best work came in the final five months of last season, Anderson's in the final three. Price's was in roughly two and a half, and he had perhaps slightly lesser numbers than either of them at his best. But are those really significant differences? They still all represent less than one full year's worth of production. In other words, not one of the three can be considered an ironclad guarantee.

Interestingly enough, both Kershaw and Anderson are being picked higher than Garza, who as the No. 32 starting pitcher in ADP is the Rays' top starter. This is absolutely a contest that Price should win.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.