Tampa Bay Rays pitching preview

Welcome to life after James Shields.

The Tampa Bay Rays still have ace left-hander David Price, of course, but this season will be uncharted terrain of sorts for a pitching staff that led the major leagues with a 3.19 ERA last season.

Shields, a right-hander traded to the Kansas City Royals in December in a blockbuster deal, had become a linchpin of Tampa Bay’s success on the mound over the past six seasons. He threw no fewer than 215 innings in five of those years. With him gone, Price and company must evolve.

If starters hand a lead to manager Joe Maddon’s bullpen, the advantage is in good hands. Closer Fernando Rodney, coming off a record-setting year, appeared in prime shape while helping guide the Dominican Republic to an undefeated run in the World Baseball Classic earlier this month. Joel Peralta and Jake McGee are solid, and well-traveled veteran reliever Jamey Wright adds depth.

Yes, Shields is out. But intriguing pieces remain.

Welcome to a new world.

Below is a look at the Tampa Bay staff entering the season. Last year’s record, ERA and saves are in parentheses.

Rotation

David Price, LHP (20-5, 2.56 ERA): The returning American League Cy Young Award winner produced career numbers last season in throwing 211 innings. Without James Shields, he’ll be expected to take on more of a leadership role.

Jeremy Hellickson, RHP (10-11, 3.10 ERA): He pitched 177 innings in 31 starts last season, 12 fewer innings than his career-best from 2011. A returning co-winner of the American League Gold Glove Award, he must become a trusted No. 2 behind Price.

Matt Moore, LHP (11-11, 3.81 ERA): He struggled at times this spring with his delivery, calling it a mechanical flaw. He must find his command quickly, though, in what will be his second full major-league season.

Alex Cobb, RHP (11-9, 4.03 ERA): He pitched a rotation-low 136.1 innings in 23 starts last season. Expect the Rays to push him for more work this summer.

Roberto Hernandez, RHP (0-3, 7.53 ERA): The former Cleveland Indians pitcher won a job in the rotation after competition this spring with Jeff Niemann. He looks to rebound from a non-stellar showing last season, when he saw limited time because of suspension (false identity) and a sprained right ankle.

Bullpen

Fernando Rodney, RHP (2-2, 0.60 ERA, 48/50 saves): He looked to be in mid-season form while helping lead the Dominican Republic to a World Baseball Classic title. At 36, he appears to have enjoyed a career renaissance after arriving from the Los Angeles Angels before last season.

Joel Peralta, RHP (2-6, 3.63 ERA, 2/5 saves): He’s a valuable mentor to young Latin players on roster. His 76 appearances last season were the most of his career.

Jake McGee, LHP (5-2, 1.95 ERA, 0/2 saves): He pitched 55.1 innings last season, nearly double what he threw in 2011. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the 26-year-old receive more work this season.

Cesar Ramos, LHP (1-0, 2.10 ERA, 0/0 saves): He’s a promising player who adds depth to the bullpen. The 28-year-old pitched 30 innings in his second year with the Rays after arriving from the San Diego Padres.

Kyle Farnsworth, RHP (1-6, 4.00 ERA, 0/0 saves): A 14-year veteran, he enters his third season with the Rays as someone who can offer sage guidance to younger talent in the bullpen. He only pitched 27 innings last season, the fewest of his career.

Jamey Wright, RHP (5-3, 3.72 ERA, 0/0 saves): The journeyman veteran has found another home, this time with his fifth team in since 2009. The 38-year-old is a smart pickup by the Rays and earned a bullpen spot over right-hander Brandon Gomes.  

Jeff Niemann, RHP (2-3, 3.08 ERA, 0/0 saves): He was thought to be the favorite to earn a rotation spot entering spring, but he lost the role to Hernandez. Still, Maddon has said the 30-year-old could return to the rotation once his velocity improves.

Biggest Strength

The Rays have a strong ability to close. Their bullpen last season was among the best in franchise history, leading the American League with a 2.88 ERA and holding batters to a .208 average. It was the lowest ERA by an AL team since the 2005 Indians (2.80), and no team since the 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers (.207) had held opponents to a lower batting average. Rodney, Peralta and McGee are proven, and Niemann can use the bullpen assignment as motivation after losing out to Hernandez for a rotation spot. If Tampa Bay holds a comfortable lead late, there’s a good chance the bullpen will take care of business.

Biggest Question

How will Hernandez fare in the rotation?

The former Indians pitcher was awarded a rotation spot after beating out Niemann in spring’s most contested battle. Aside from a poor showing in a 10-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday in Clearwater, Fla. – he gave up nine runs and 11 hits in six innings – Hernandez had more consistent offerings than his competitor. Will it last? Maddon has said it’s possible that Niemann could work his way back into the rotation, but it’s unlikely the manager would yank Hernandez from the role soon, if at all. He only pitched 14.1 innings last season because of the ankle injury and a false-identity scandal in the Dominican Republic. He hopes to rebound in a strong way this summer.

Most important piece of staff

The Rays know exactly what they have with Price. After his AL Cy Young Award-winning season, he’ll be trusted to become a larger presence in the clubhouse with Shields in Kansas City.

This spring, Price has answered many questions about his future in Tampa Bay. Will he stay? Will he become too expensive for the Rays’ limited financial flexibility? Price has said, in a perfect world, he would prefer to remain with the only major-league franchise he has known.

But he also wants fair market value for his talent, which is understandable. This could be a season where Rays fans watch him work and wonder how many more glimpses they have left.  

Overall

This will be a season of the Innings Watch. Shields threw a staff-best 227.2 last year, his sixth consecutive campaign of 200-plus innings of work.

Executive vice president Andrew Friedman has said his greatest concern entering the season is his starters’ ability to work deep enough to keep the bullpen fresh. Price, of course, will be the star. But Hellickson, Hernandez, Moore and Cobb must do their share as well.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.