-- In a bleak landscape for pitching, the Tampa Bay Rays are awash in talented young starters with affordable contracts and several years of club control. Survey the available options and Tampa is an oasis of promise in a desert of back-end, complementary types.
But, as the Aug. 1 deadline nears and speculation builds that Andrew Cashner and Jeremy Hellickson will soon be on the move, and Jose Quintana might be in play, and Rich Hill will be dealt if he can get past that pesky blister, the snippets of news out of Tampa Bay have been underwhelming.
As each day passes without a match, potential trade partners are becoming more convinced that Tampa Bay will sit this deadline out.
Several teams that have had conversations with the Rays have concluded they're perfectly willing -- and leaning toward -- hanging on to their big assets and waiting to act during the winter, when they can engage with 29 MLB teams rather than a handful making playoff pushes. Although the Rays will probably trade Steve Pearce and could find a new home for reliever Erasmo Ramirez over the next few days, there's a growing sense in baseball circles that starters Chris Archer, Matt Moore, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly will end the season where they started it.
"I think they'll take it to the offseason," said an official with a club in the starting pitcher market. "They'll get a lot of information now. They'll find out who's really serious, and then they'll take the month of August to really scout that organization and see who they have a good fit with. There's no urgency for them to do stuff now. They can set a price, and if they don't get it, they'll take it into the offseason and go from there."
The Rays are 38-61 and 20 games out of first place in the American League East, and run-prevention issues have been a major culprit. Tampa Bay's starters rank 15th in the majors with a 4.25 ERA, and, barring a late turnaround, this season will mark the first time since 2009 the Rays' rotation has been above 4.00 as a group.
Some factors are beyond the pitchers' control. In one ugly stretch from late May to early July, outfielders Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Guyer, Steven Souza Jr. and Desmond Jennings all landed on the disabled list. After posting an aggregate 44 defensive runs saved in 2015, Tampa Bay's outfielders are at 12 this season. In addition, the Rays gave a significant amount of playing time to catcher Hank Conger, who flopped offensively and defensively before Tampa Bay optioned him to Triple-A Durham during the All-Star break.
Even so, the numbers are still disappointing, particularly in the case of Archer, a preseason Cy Young candidate whose season has been a portrait in bizarre. Archer leads the American League with 155 strikeouts and is sixth in the AL with a 12 percent swinging strike rate. His fastball has held relatively steady at 94.2 mph, and his slider remains a major weapon. But his WHIP has risen from 1.14 to 1.35 this season, and he has consistently gotten himself in early trouble with an 8.59 ERA in the first inning. Win-loss totals can be deceptive, but Archer's 5-14 record is nevertheless unsightly.
As Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman and his group contemplate their options and decide whether they want to spring into action or wait, here's a pecking order of how things line up this winter -- in terms of how Tampa values the aforementioned four starters and the price potential suitors will be expected to pay:
1. Chris Archer
He's 27 and is under team control for a total of $38.5 million from 2017 to 2021, assuming the Rays exercise the two club options at the back end of his deal, so it would take a monster package for Tampa Bay to consider moving him.
For sake of comparison, Cole Hamels was 31 and had $82 million left on his contract when Texas acquired him for a package that included Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson and Jerad Eickhoff last July. So what kind of return would Archer command? If the Dodgers were to make a run at him, they would almost certainly have to part with Julio Urias. If Texas wants in on the action, the Rangers will have to think about surrendering Nomar Mazara or Jurickson Profar (or both). Archer is a top-10 pitcher when he's right and is one of the budding stars of baseball, so the Rays would be looking to make a killing.
2a. Matt Moore
Moore underwent Tommy John surgery in April 2014 and is working his way back to the form he showed when he wowed everyone with a 17-4 record and a 3.29 ERA in 2013. Moore has carved his ERA from 5.56 to 4.31 since June 7, and he has worked six innings or more in nine straight starts. He is signed to a five-year, $14 million deal with club options of $7 million in 2017, $9 million in 2018 and $10 million in 2019, so he's one budget-friendly left-hander.
2b. Jake Odorizzi
Some clubs might prefer Odorizzi, an athletic right-hander who has less upside but has shown more consistency than Moore. He has three years of arbitration eligibility remaining, during which he's likely to earn a total payout slightly north of $20 million. That's a reasonable sum for a pitcher who can slot right into the middle of a contending rotation. "Performance-wise, you're going Odorizzi,'' said a National League executive. "Moore's got better stuff, but he's never put it together. Scouts will take Moore, but I think front offices will take Odorizzi.''
4. Drew Smyly
Smyly dealt with shoulder problems in 2015, and his 2-11 record, 5.42 ERA and 21 homers allowed have made this a summer to forget. He's under club control for two more years, compared with three for Moore and Odorizzi and five for Archer. If teams are looking for a glimmer of hope, Smyly has 112 strikeouts in 111 1/3 innings but the 12th-highest batting average on balls in play in the majors this season (.308). If the Rays move him, they'll be selling low on a 27-year-old, left-handed, potential bounce-back candidate.
If the Rays decide to stand pat, they'll enter the winter with a starter contingent of Archer, Odorizzi, Moore, Smyly, highly regarded rookie Blake Snell and Alex Cobb, who is expected to return from Tommy John surgery next month barring a significant setback. Factor in Matt Andriese and Triple-A pitchers Jaime Schultz and Jacob Faria, and that's nine starters who could be in the mix in spring training. By moving one or two, the Rays can ease the congestion and deal from an area of strength to fill several needs.
So why wait? For one thing, the timing is good. Although Tampa Bay's starters look attractive now, they're going to have even more appeal this winter against the backdrop of a colossally weak free-agent crop. Now that Stephen Strasburg is off the market, the top options include Clay Buchholz, Cashner, Ivan Nova, Hellickson, Hill, Jered Weaver and R.A. Dickey.
As Rays beat writer Marc Topkin points out, recent history suggests the Rays are going to move someone soon enough. Since 2008, they've traded away Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, James Shields, David Price and Hellickson. With the notable exception of Evan Longoria, every Tampa Bay player has to stay light on his feet and be ready for anything at the trade deadline.
Could a sense of desperation prompt a potential suitor to panic and overpay in the next few days? There's always a chance. But in the absence of that scenario, all is quiet on the Tampa Bay front. The Rays are poised to make a lot more noise this winter.