The Tampa Bay Rays Way has gone slightly astray here in 2013.
It's not that the Rays aren't in the hunt in an American League East that has lived up to every preseason prognostication about its unpredictability. They are, and that's a credit, once again, to the developmental genius that has allowed a guy like Matt Moore to become one of the best pitchers in baseball in the early going. It's also a credit to the clubhouse and coaching culture that has allowed James Loney to go from discarded Dodger to flourishing free-agent addition.
But Tampa Bay's time-tested formula of cycling through one quality homegrown pitcher after another has hit a bit of a snag thus far this year, and now an injury to David Price has the potential to throw it completely out of whack.
If it wasn't physically evident before Wednesday night that something was off with Price this season, it was, at the least, statistically evident. The reigning AL Cy Young Award winner had lost a couple ticks on his fastball and, accordingly, gained a couple ticks on his ERA.
Where once Price threw his fastball as much as 74 percent of the time (and 60.6 percent in the Cy season), he has used it just a little more than half the time (54.7) this year, according to FanGraphs.com, relying much more frequently on his cutter, curveball and changeup. That change in approach came with good reason, as his fastball was averaging 93.3 mph, more than two full marks below Price's 2012 number. Furthermore -- and this admittedly might mean absolutely nothing -- Price was taking more time between pitches than he ever had previously in his career.
Simply put, Price has just looked ... off. But until Wednesday night, the Rays could shrug it off as an ace finding his footing.
Now, with Price on the disabled list for the first time in his career, we'll see how serious his injury situation is. Not long after he essentially pulled himself from the game against the Red Sox in the third inning (confident enough in his shaky status that he opted not to even bother throwing a test pitch), the generic diagnosis relayed to the media was "triceps tendinitis."
At best, he benefits from this rest period. At worst, well, let's not even go there just yet. You just hope, for the sake of one of the game's brightest young stars, that this injury is not serious enough to be season-threatening.
"From what I'm hearing right now," manager Joe Maddon told reporters Wednesday night, "it doesn't sound to be awful."
And Maddon has stressed all along that Price hasn't been awful this season, either. Though saddled with a 5.24 ERA and striking out fewer batters and giving up more home runs than he ever has previously, Price offered Tampa Bay hope every fifth day, simply as a function of his poise and presence and the unshakable belief that he'd straighten himself out.
The injury should help to explain what's gone wrong with Price, but it can't do much to help a Rays pitching staff that has struggled to live up to its well-earned reputation. Tampa Bay is giving up more runs per game (4.51) than all but seven Major League teams -- with a home park notoriously helpful in the run-prevention department, no less. While the James Shields trade was and remains a deal worth making, the effects of losing Shields have, indeed, been felt in the starting five.
While Moore (7-0, 2.44 ERA) has been sensational (with a big assist from Price, a helpful mentor and listener) and Alex Cobb (4-2, 3.09) has been very good, the rotation has not had its usual depth. Jeremy Hellickson has an ERA (5.25) much more in line with his career Fielding Independent Pitching mark (4.49) than he has in previous seasons, and Roberto Hernandez, the first non-homegrown starter employed by the Rays in eight years, has endured many of the consistency woes that plagued him in Cleveland, albeit with a better strikeout rate than ever before.
With Tampa Bay, there is always, it seems, help on the horizon. And so it is that Jake Odorizzi and/or Chris Archer, both high-strikeout guys, are just a phone call away at Triple-A Durham and have the potential to be impact arms at the big league level.
But it's both obvious and correct to say that much of the Rays' future -- both immediate and long term -- is tied up in Price's left arm. Without the ace taking the mound every fifth day and living up to that billing, if not his Cy status, it's definitely more difficult to imagine Tampa Bay hanging tough in the AL East over the long haul of 162. And we all know what a valuable trade chip a healthy Price is, and it's naturally been speculated that the Rays could explore the value of that chip come season's end.
Of course, one element of the Rays Way is to always eke the most out of the resources at hand, so I would never feel confident counting them out, with or without Price. But Price's numbers -- and now his injury -- are discomforting, to say the least.