From fresh-faced prospect to surprise playoff starter to overnight millionaire. That's Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Moore, who this morning agreed to a five-year, $14 million contract that includes three more option years. Moore entered 2011 as one of baseball's hottest pitching prospects and ended it by dominating both the Yankee and Ranger lineups on national TV. While it may seem risky to give an unproven 22-year-old a guaranteed five years, there's a very good chance that this deal will turn into an utter steal for Tampa in the long run.
Moore should instantly light up your fantasy radar. He projects as a bonafide number one starter who could annually top the league leaders in strikeouts. Assuming Moore is going to be instantly slotted into the starting rotation (would they have signed him to this deal merely to shove him in the bullpen?), this not only gives the Rays four drool-worthy starting pitchers for 2012, but it gives them a surplus of starting pitching that should be monitored by roto players all around.
Matt Moore will enter the 2012 season having pitched more innings in the major league postseason than in the regular season. I'm not sure how often that kind of thing has happened in major league history (may we never forget Mark Kiger), but it's a testament to just how highly Moore is regarded by his organization and baseball as a whole. Joe Maddon thought so much of Moore and his ability that he (somewhat shockingly) threw him to the wolves in Game One of the ALDS in favor of the more "proven" Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis. Moore justified Maddon's faith and quickly made himself a playoff hero by shutting down the Rangers for seven innings.
Thus begins the Matt Moore Era. Long story short: he's going to be a stud. That much was evident to the world when he struck out eleven Yankees in his only regular season start in 2011. With his mid-90's heat and power curve, he should rack up the strikeouts and wins, which should make him a Top 15 or so fantasy starter in no time. He has a good defensive unit behind him to nab anything on the not-so-frequent occasions that opposing batters do make contact, and he's a high-reward pick on draft day.
The thing to keep in mind when bidding on Moore, however, is that the Rays will most likely monitor his innings closely. Even with teams navigating away from overly strict pitch counts these days, young pitchers are still a major injury risk, so the Rays will probably keep a close watch on Moore's workload. This could mean he might not break 180 innings, which would, by extension, curtail his strikeout totals.
There's also the danger inherent in just assuming he's going to be Cy Young right out of the gate. Not all young pitchers are like Stephen Strasburg or Clayton Kershaw. A lot of them take some initial lumps before settling in. Even Moore's teammate, David Price, was spotty in his first big league season before busting out for good the following year. Moore will have to face the Yankees and Red Sox a bunch of times as well, which can put a dent in anyone's season ERA.
Regardless, Moore needs to be on your radar on draft day, and if you're in a keeper league, he's one to go after hard. If he avoids injury, he should be a fixture in the AL Cy Young balloting for years to come and he'll likely provide top-level value to the Rays at a bargain price, much like the team's deal with Evan Longoria.
If Moore is indeed a starter, he combines with James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, and David Price to form perhaps the most formidable starting rotation in all of baseball. It also means that one or both of Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis will be forced out. Now, Niemann and Davis are both low-upside innings-munchers, so normally this wouldn't mean squat from a fantasy perspective. However, if a trade occurs that sends one of them to a more favorable environment, they could suddenly have some value.
Niemann is the most likely to be shipped off because he's already arbitration eligible and it's very doubtful the thrifty Rays will want to give a fairly substantial raise to a projected fifth starter when they have this kind of pitcher oozing out of every pore. Where Niemann could potentially get interesting is if he is traded to a friendly environment, say the National League, or to a pitcher's park. Getting out of the AL East should help his ERA go down, and his strikeout rate is solid enough that he could enjoy a minor breakout in the right situation. If he does indeed get dealt, bargain-hunters should keep an eye on where he ends up.
One more player to monitor is Alex Cobb, yet another in the Rays plethora of cheap, quality young arms. If the Rays go really cheap and end up trading both Niemann and Davis, it would create an opportunity for Cobb. Cobb started nine games for the Rays last season and more than held his own. He doesn't have the top-flight stuff of Moore or some of the other Rays prospects, but his strikeout numbers in the minors were solid and he projects to be a decent fourth-starter type. Given his relative success in a short stint last season and the possibility that he could log 150-170 innings should a rotation spot open for him, he's a worthy pickup in keeper leagues and might be worth considering late in deeper one-year leagues.