Digging for Diamonds – Alex Torres
Death, taxes, and the Rays finding value in a handful of otherwise deeply flawed players every year. You can indeed count on all of these things with equal certainty. I refuse to discuss James Loney on principle, so I will instead use this occasion to turn the spotlight on young fireballer Alex Torres. Technically still a rookie, Torres is in the midst of a breakout season in the Rays’ bullpen. Over 48 innings in this, his age 25 season, he’s firmly established himself among the best middle relief options for fantasy managers by posting a spectacular 1.31 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and 10.13 K/9. His FIP is a full run higher than his ERA at 2.31, indicating he’s likely benefited from at least a little positive fortune, but all told his strong peripherals and batted ball profile indicate that his 2013 performance has not been all that much of a fluke.
To say this season has been a pleasant surprise would be to do it an injustice, however. Torres has always had stuff to spare, as evidenced by a career whiff rate of nearly 10-per-9 and a hit rate of less than 8-per-9 in over 700 minor league innings. He featured a three-pitch mix throughout his minor league career, a repertoire anchored by a low-90’s fastball and supplemented with a curve and change that could both flash plus movement.
But he’s also got exactly the kind of across-the-body left-handed delivery that, while helpful in adding deception and movement, can just as easily lend itself to repeatability issues and command problems. And command issues Torres has had aplenty. His career minor league walk rate sits over 5-per-9, and he bottomed out last year in walking 63 AAA hitters in just 69 innings. The turnaround he’s produced this season has been nothing short of amazing.
In moving him to the bullpen this season the Rays have dialed his curveball usage down in favor of a fastball-change combo, and both pitches have been lights out. His fastball value trails only Koji Uehara in runs-above-average/100, and his change checks in 13th best among relievers. With that lethal 1-2 punch he’s been far more valuable than your average LOOGY, actually posting a reverse split and holding righties to a .190 wOBA (vs. a .210 mark against fellow lefties). Best of all, he’s done this by keeping the free passes in check to the tune of a 9.8% walk rate (3.38/9).
Torres now presents as a potentially quintessential late bloomer, a guy who’s always had the talent but took longer than most to fully harness it. He kicked around on the fringes of prospect lists for a while on account of his strikeout and hit rates alongside enough glimmers of gold to keep the occasional scout tantalized, but up until this season he’s always been held back by spotty-at-best control. But it’s all clicked in 2013. Given both his pedigree as a starter throughout his minor league career and his splits against right-handed hitters this year he may very well have earned himself a shot at the Tampa rotation next spring. Given the likely acquisition cost in most leagues he represents an intriguing option to target for an off-season trade, and in shallower leagues he’s very definitely someone to keep a close eye on in spring training.