We got back to shortstops yesterday, generally focusing on Tampa Bay’s Hak-Ju Lee. Just a year after being acquired from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade, he became the team’s best shortstop prospect and best prospect among all position players. His athleticism, solid bat and nice plate approach makes him one of the top shortstop prospects in the game, and the Rays hope he can hit at the top of their lineup soon. The Rays have a pretty deep depth chart at shortstop, and they hope they can finally find a long term answer at the position. We’ll wrap up this week by staying in the Rays organization and talking about the pitcher that everyone was talking about in the playoffs, Matt Moore.
Matt Moore, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays (2011: AA Montgomery, AAA Durham, MLB Tampa Bay)
The list of prospects with great stuff that never fully harness it is endless. Those pitchers will continue to get chance after chance because someone will always say, “Well, if he ever figures it out…” For the first part of his career, Moore was that guy. His BB/9 in his first full season was 5.1, but his other peripherals were outstanding. He struck out 12.9 batters per nine innings with Bowling Green, and he only allowed 86 hits in 123 innings. The promise was there.
The promise was there because of Moore’s prototypical size and his top notch stuff. His fastball and curveball were both great pitches, and those allowed him to rack up strikeout after strikeout in the South Atlantic League even though his changeup wasn’t very far along yet. Moore made strides the next season in the Florida State League where a strong second half allowed his BB/9 to drop down to 3.8 while his strikeout rate remained consistent. He struck out 208 in the regular season which led all of minor league baseball. With the improvements in command, Moore’s stock also improved.
Moore had a pattern of getting off to slow starts during season and improving in the second half, and after a rough April, it looked like it may happen again with Montgomery. However, he bucked the trend and settled in to have an incredible season. His strikeout rate was down a bit but who cares? His walk rate was well below 3.0, his hit rate was its lowest since his second season in the Appy League, and he was emerging as one of the game’s best prospects, if he wasn’t already.He was putting it all together. The Rays typically promote players a bit slower than the continents drift, but it was impossible to deny Moore the challenge of moving to AAA. He threw his first career no hitter with Montgomery, and it might not be his last.
His national coming out party (to prospect fans anyway) was probably the Futures Game at Arizona in July. He was in the midst of an incredible season, and fans wanted to see if he could live up to the hype. In short… yes. He was firing high 90′s fastballs, and his curveball had so much velocity and movement that people were wondering if he had a new, great pitch. He was amped up to pitch in a short burst, and there’s not much to take from Futures Game appearances, but it was impressive. He made one more start with Montgomery and was then promoted to AAA Durham.
Usually it takes players some time to adjust to new levels, but Moore may have been even better. His strikeout rate rose to 13.5 per nine innings, and even though his walk rate ticked up a bit, his hit rate improved. His WHIP was nearly identical to his Montgomery WHIP, and his ERA was down. He was a key cog in Durham’s rotation which was lacking depth in the rotation. He helped them reach the playoffs once again, but they were quickly dispatched by Columbus. The question had to be asked: would he be promoted to the majors?
The conventional wisdom was no; the Rays closely monitor service time for young players, and it appeared as if he may have been wearing down at the end of the season. However, the Rays were suddenly in the playoff hunt, and they could use some firepower in the bullpen. He was promoted.
Probably due to nerves, he struggled early on. His fastball location was poor, but he quickly settled in. The Rays needed a starter to step in late in the season, and they went to Moore. In five innings, he struck out 11 Yankees and only allowed five baserunners. It still wasn’t really his coming out party to fans not already familiar with him though, as impressive as it was. That would be just eight days later when the Rays tabbed Moore to be their game one starter against the Rangers in the ALDS. James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson were all unavailable for the start of the series, and Joe Maddon took a risk and gave the ball to the talented yet inexperienced Moore.
Despite what Buck Martinez desperately tried convincing viewers, Moore’s success that day wasn’t simply due to the shadows or the Rangers’ inexperience in dealing with him, although the latter is much more plausible. The Rays had plenty of success in the same environment. Moore was sharp, pitching seven shutout innings while only allowing four baserunners. He threw strikes, made nice adjustments in the middle innings and completely shut down one of the league’s best lineups. He entered game four in a relief role and allowed a run, but it was still a solid outing.
There’s no telling what Moore’s ceiling is. He could be the best pitching prospect in all of baseball with a true ace ceiling. In a recent survey conducted by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, big league talent evaluators were virtually split when asked if they would prefer Moore or phenom Stephen Strasburg (Yu Darvish was also an option, but no one chose him.) Hopefully the Rays don’t have him start the season in AAA due to service time concerns, but it would be understandable. What may help Moore reach his potential is the often undervalued sixth tool- humor.
The tool is still raw, perhaps lagging behind the rest of his game, but any evaluator can see the potential is there. He starts off uneasy and tentative, stammering through his lines and asking Little Caesars if they are in fact Little Caesars despite looking right at their menu and dialing their phone number seconds earlier. He slowly gains confidence throughout the commercial and begins showing his comic upside. At the end, he looks like a finished product. “Hope they’re hungry” is delivered perfectly as he walks away. If he can fully develop his humor tool, he may be able to help Evan Longoria finally find that missing cap.
Come back Monday for the continuation of Prospect A-Z. Will it be Washington’s power hitting catcher, Detroit’s high priced third base prospect or a Toronto pitcher who probably couldn’t have pitched better this season?