The 2011 Tampa Bay Rays had 148 of their games started by the same five pitchers. Just one of them, Jeff Niemann, missed significant time with injury, as he made just 23 starts and threw 135 innings. Jeremy Hellickson and Wade Davis both started 29 games, and both crossed the 180 inning mark as well. The real horses were James Shields and David Price, who combined for 67 starts and 473 frames by themselves. If you're looking for one reason why they made it to the playoffs, the consistency of their rotation is the most deserving of being singled out.
All five of these pitchers are set to return in 2012. In addition to that group, the Rays also have phenom Matt Moore. While normally you would expect Moore to sit in Triple-A until Tampa Bay had a spot for him, he made it about as clear as he could over five games that he's here to stay: Moore struck out 23 hitters in 19-1/3 innings pitched, allowing just six walks and four runs -- two of those appearances were in the playoffs, too.
To make it more obvious that he's done with the minors, the Rays signed him to a five-year deal for $14 million with three option years this off-season after watching him throw those frames, buying out his pre-arbitration, arb-eligible, and first few years of free agency in one fell swoop. He'll be a starter in 2012, even if there is no obvious room for him right now.
The same can't be said for the rest of the Rays' pitching prospects, though. Alex Cobb, who started nine games for the Rays in 2011, is likely stuck in Triple-A once more. Alex Torres threw 146 innings in Triple-A Durham in 2011, but will end up there again -- where else are you going to put him? Chris Archer, acquired in the Matt Garza trade, still needs time in the minors, but a strong season in Triple-A isn't about to get the 23-year-old a gig with the Rays anyway.
These three pitchers have nowhere to go, a great problem to have considering the organization promoted Jeremy Hellickson from the minors to the Rays' rotation for the 2011 season, and now looks to be doing the same with Moore for 2012. Wade Davis hasn't been great yet, but he was stuck in the rotation for 2010 out of the minors, and in 2009, David Price and Jeff Niemann were both that guy. The lone pitcher you could refer to as a veteran is James Shields, as he's the only one out of his 20s, and the only one to earn his rotation spot when they were still the Devil Rays. See a pattern here? This kind of consistent promotion is why a contending team could deal Matt Garza in the first place.
Torres, Cobb, and to an extent, Archer, might be depth for Tampa Bay, but could likely start in the majors for a few teams right now. They are also the reason why the Rays could move Niemann or Davis in a trade to make room for Moore rather than just pop one of them into the bullpen, as those prospects can represent either the future or the present day.
The 24-year-old Torres has always had issues with walks, but opposing hitters have always had trouble making contact against him: he's walked five per nine in 577 minor league innings, but struck out over a batter per inning. Minor league defenses tend to be more porous than their MLB counterparts, but Torres has held opponents to just 7.8 hits per nine innings anyway. He's legitimately tough to hit, and while sometimes low hit rates are luck, there's a good chance Torres is also in the Jonathan Sanchez mold as well, and can be a league-average or better starter despite the walks when he gets the chance.
Cobb threw 52 innings in the majors last year, striking out just 6.3 per nine. His time in Triple-A was excellent, however, as Cobb threw 67 innings with 70 strikeouts and just 16 walks (4.4 K/BB). Control is going to be his game, as he's not a pitcher with an abundance of stuff. But control can get you a long way, especially when it's paired with a plus change-up. He has done nothing but succeed in the minors, and has improved as he moved through the levels. If not for the glut of pitchers in front of him, Rays fans would be excited to have Cobb coming up instead of waiting in the wings.
Archer is the furthest off of this group, but as recently as last year he was also considered the most talented of these three arms. The righty has two plus pitches, and dominated Single- and High-A in 2010, combining for 142 innings, 9.4 strikeouts per nine, 2.34 ERA, and 2.3 K/BB. Last year didn't go as well -- Archer struck out 7.9 per nine in Double-A with a 4.42 ERA -- but he still finished the campaign with a promotion to Triple-A. The stuff is still there, but the question is whether he becomes an effective starter or a shutdown reliever. Given the Rays' roster construction, the choice might default to the latter unless he is dealt, but that won't necessarily mean he isn't capable of the former.
The Rays have a talented lineup and defense, but the real magic in Tampa Bay comes from their rotation. The pipeline of young, talented starters is one of the key reasons for their success since 2008, and why they could trade the successful Matt Garza for future pieces in the toughest division in baseball. While the system might not always produce this kind of pitching, it's hard not to be in awe of Tampa Bay's golden age of starting depth.