Let’s start off with the obvious: The news for Matt Moore is far from a death sentence as far as his 2014 season is concerned. An inconclusive MRI and a trip to Dr. Andrews’ office are both ominous, but in themselves they are not the end.
The more basic concern is that Moore has had to be shut down for elbow trouble before. Last year, the power southpaw missed 31 games (or about five starts) to inflammation to this same left elbow, and Joe Maddon understandably didn’t sound thrilled the day after Moore had to leave his Monday start early, admitting that the elbow was “worse than what we thought before.”
It’s easy to speculate about how losing Moore for an extended period of time could be disastrous for the Rays’ annual bid to be underdog contender in 2014. Consider who’s in their rotation beyond staff ace David Price; Alex Cobb has yet to notch a 30-start season in the majors, after all. Neither has Chris Archer. Rookie Jake Odorizzi has seven career big league starts; he’s expected to become a midrotation horse in time, but absent Moore they might need that time to be now.
The thing is that’s by design. This year’s rotation isn’t saddled with a willful science experiment like the comeback of Roberto Hernandez (the mound artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona). It was instead a quintet picked because of their bright futures and readiness. Price is the old man of the group at 28, a man who could add another Cy Young Award or two to his mantel before hitting free agency after 2015. Cobb (4th round, 2006) and Moore (8th round, 2007) are reminders that picking high school arms really can pay off in terms of upside, taken at a time when it seemed as if everyone was overreacting to less-remembered object lesson of "Moneyball," that you should rely on college-groomed arms. Archer (25) was part of the package received for Matt Garza, Odorizzi, a former first-rounder and an egregious bit of ballast bundled into the Wil Myers-James Shields deal with the Royals.
It’s a cadre of talent carefully accumulated and prepped to pick up where that old Rays rotation of Price, Garza and Shields. Heck, it’s a group so good and so young you might be forgiven for pegging them as the gaggle most likely to do a ’90s Braves impression in the back half of the decade. But that’s only on paper, and only if they stay healthy, and as with almost every rotation this side of the ’90s Braves (or the Aughties White Sox), that’s never a sure thing no matter how smart they might be in getting them, and no matter how carefully you manage their workloads.
Asking about whether the Rays have a serious problem depends on your time frame and whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. For the time being, it looks like they might turn to journeyman Erik Bedard, no stranger to the DL himself, and not a guy you can count on to get through opposing lineups three times. If it’s Cesar Ramos instead, you can still ask yourself if the bullpen lefty will do that much better beyond a second time through the order. Either of them will add to the middle-inning load of the bullpen. It’s nothing Joe Maddon hasn’t had to manage around before, but full, healthy seasons from Cobb, as well as Price, would certainly help.
The good news is that the Rays might not have to resort to those kinds of patches in their rotation for long. In the nearer term, Jeremy Hellickson is slowly making his way back from February surgery to remove bodies in his pitching elbow. If he heals on the short side of his recovery plan, he might be back in action in the second half of May, while the long side might involve sometime in June. So the Rays’ window of need in the worst-case scenario might close no later than June -- if Moore has to miss the season, and if Hellickson takes the maximum amount of time to recuperate and gear up, barring any setbacks.
But that’s Hellickson comes back to pitch the way he did before 2013, and while you can hope so, we’ll need to see it happen first. Even though metrics like FIP and xFIP cheerily proposed 2013 was his best season yet because his strikeout rate went up, suggesting he was almost a full run per nine better last year than his 5.17 ERA. While Hellickson earned plenty of top-talent touts in his first two seasons and while he is still just 27 years old, last year he notched just 11 quality starts in 31 turns, his power allowed to opposing batters spiked up to a .176 Isolated Power, and his innings pitched per start dropped to 5.5. The cavalry won’t come if this horse comes back hobbled by that kind of hard-hit, liner-happy ineffectiveness.
This early in a season, it’s easy to be negative. It’s easy to be positive. You can hope Moore will be back in action after two weeks or as many as five (like last year), because last year, Price, Cobb and Moore all spent time on the DL, and the Rays nevertheless made it to the postseason. But that was then, and this is where the rubber meets the road. The last bit of good news is that, even with the defending champion Red Sox in the division, nobody from among the East’s tough quintet of teams looks like they’ll be running out ahead anytime soon. We’ll see if the Rays can roll with this latest injury as effectively as they’ve adapted in the past, but I wouldn’t bet against them, whatever Doc Andrews says to Matt Moore on a day TBNL.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.