Is Rubby De La Rosa The Next Wade Davis?
The similarity between the career path of newly acquired Arizona Diamondback Rubby De La Rosa and Kansas City Royals setup specialist Wade Davis early on in their respective Major League careers is striking. The future is neither pre-determined nor set in stone, and while De La Rosa will be given every opportunity to establish himself as a starter in the Arizona rotation this upcoming season, if he continues on his current trajectory, his ultimate destiny and clearest path to significant fantasy value, just like Davis, is as a late-inning reliever.
De La Rosa made his Major League debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011 and racked up 13 appearances (10 starts) before suffering a tear of his ulnar collateral ligament that required Tommy John surgery. A year later, just days after making his return from surgery, he was dealt to the Boston Red Sox in the nine-player blockbuster trade that shipped the albatross contracts of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.
Once he arrived in Boston, De La Rosa continued to progress in his recovery from Tommy John, pitching out of the bullpen late in the 2013 regular season, when the Red Sox went on to win the World Series. After injuries and ineffectiveness ravaged their rotation last season he got an opportunity to step into the big league rotation full-time.
The results were mixed as the 26-year old made 18 starts for Boston posting a 4.43 ERA with 74 strikeouts and 35 walks over 102 innings of work. After joining the rotation in late May, De La Rosa went seven innings (allowing one earned run or less) in six of his first 11 starts before fading badly down the stretch. De La Rosa failed to reach the seventh inning in each of his final seven starts and posted an ugly 7.11 ERA in September.
In 2014, De La Rosa threw 59% fastballs and 27% changeups and it quickly became apparent that his biggest problem is that he lacks an effective third pitch. It’s no coincidence that once he started throwing fewer changeups late in the season, his ERA skyrocketed. A limited arsenal combined with his control issues (3.10 BB/9) is not a recipe for success and he simply doesn’t strike out enough batters (6.55 K/9) to overcome those issues.
Despite his immense potential, it always felt like De La Rosa was destined to end up in the bullpen, which is exactly why the Red Sox jumped on the opportunity to package him with Allen Webster to acquire a valuable mid-rotation starter in Wade Miley on Dec 12.
Much like De La Rosa in Boston, Davis bounced between a crowded Rays rotation and the bullpen in Tampa Bay for two seasons (2010 & 2011), where his biggest problem as a starter was that he relied primarily on two pitches and consistently failed to strike out enough batters (6.05% K/9 in 2010 and 5.14% K/9 in 2011). Davis finally settled into a relief role in 2012, where his average fastball velocity jumped from 91.8 mph to 93.7 mph and his strikeout rate more than doubled to 11.1%. The Royals front office took notice of his dominance out of the pen and picked him up in the James Shields/Wil Myers swap the following offseason. Since that point, Davis has evolved into one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball for Kansas City.
For comparison, here is Davis pitch usage from the 2011 season at age 25, the year before he moved to the bullpen full-time. It’s almost scary how much it looks like De La Rosa’s 2014 season, at age 26, in terms of fastball usage and the lack of quality secondary offerings.
The Diamondbacks and fantasy owners can only hope for a similar development from De La Rosa as the Royals got out of Davis in the bullpen. What makes De La Rosa intriguing from a fantasy standpoint, if you have the roster flexibility to acquire him and the patience to hold onto him, is that he has two distinct career paths at this point.
Either he is going to take the next step by developing a quality third pitch (especially against lefties) and become a quality starter in Arizona or he is going to transition to the Diamondbacks bullpen where his arsenal, featuring a fastball that can hit 98-100 mph when he airs it out, is perfectly suited for late-inning situations where his command issues will be less noticeable.
At the end of the day, De La Rosa could not have landed in a better spot for his fantasy value because there should be plenty of opportunities for him in Arizona as opposed to Boston where an influx of young talented arms is coming faster than you think. While he is not a highly sought after commodity in most dynasty leagues at the moment, he is worth stashing in the event that he puts it all together, the talent is that special. All it may take is this change of scenery or a permanent move to the bullpen (which seems inevitable at this point), like Davis, for De La Rosa to make a major fantasy impact long-term.