Moore in mix, but may not land spot in rotation
Baseball's top prospect could begin season in Minor Leagues
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Call him the Rays' latest toy: A left-hander with three refined pitches, and, oh yeah, he throws 97 mph.
Welcome to the world of Matt Moore, and hats off to Tampa Bay's scouting department, which unearthed the southpaw from Edgewood, N.M., and brought him into the fold after selecting him in the eighth round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.
Moore, 22, experienced a meteoric run through the Rays' system before bursting onto the Major League scene in September. After making his debut in relief Sept. 14 in Baltimore, Moore made his first start Sept. 22 at Yankee Stadium and held the Yankees scoreless on four hits in five innings, walking one and striking out 11. Then he shut down the Rangers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, claiming the Rays' only win of the 2011 postseason.
How did this kid not get drafted before the eighth round? After all, he already could touch 94 mph and he's a left-hander.
"Coming from the area I come from, baseball is not a powerhouse," Moore said. "So obviously there's some [timidity] by teams to even look at some guys from there."
Moore could have gone to the University of New Mexico -- where his brother, Bobby, also a left-handed pitcher, played -- or New Mexico Junior College. Instead, he opted to sign with Tampa Bay.
Moore started slowly, pitching in just eight games at Class A Princeton in 2007, his first year of professional ball. He repeated at Princeton in '08 -- leading all Minor League pitchers with 12.75 strikeouts per nine innings. Moore has been on a fast track since, dominating at every level along the way.
In 2009, Moore's 176 strikeouts at Class A Bowling Green led all Minor Leaguers. He hardly grew complacent. Prior to the '10 season, Moore stepped up his training by working with Keith Smith at Pro Advantage in Tempe, Ariz.
"I felt like that was a pretty big deal for me to do," Moore said. "That got me strong enough to where I could work down the hill and work through the pitches. Whereas before, I was kind of peeling off. I just wasn't strong enough."
Developing a changeup proved to be just as important to Moore's development as his training regimen. Moore had been a two-pitch pitcher, relying heavily on his fastball and curveball before the 2011 season. That's when he decided to buckle down on adding the third pitch to his repertoire.
"I had to develop the changeup," Moore said. "I wasn't just going to throw it. I needed to use it to get somebody out, not just to throw it to get a certain number of pitches in."
Finding the right grip often proves to be one of the bigger challenges for hurlers hoping to develop the pitch, which was the case with Moore.
"You talk to everyone in here, they have this changeup or that changeup," Moore said. "It's however you can get your hand on the ball to take velocity off it, get your fingertips off it."
Moore eventually found the right grip, employing what he called a four-seam changeup. His efforts to develop the pitch were quickly rewarded and he noticed a "huge difference" in his results.
"You hear people say, 'You're going to get swing and misses, you just have to throw it down the middle at the knees and you'll get swings and misses if you set it up right,'" Moore said. "That's how it was."
While having three pitches is a must for any pitcher hoping to be a successful Major League starter, locating those pitches is the final ingredient. Moore attributed a different mindset for helping him locate his pitches.
"During the 2010 season, I went from being the kind of pitcher who walks a lot of guys and kind of nibbled at the zone to being the guy who would come at you and attack the zone," Moore said. "... I want to attack hitters early, throw a lot of strikes early, and that makes [hitters] uncomfortable. And it made them have to hit a lot of the pitches they didn't want to swing at, whereas before I was giving them a chance, because they could see four, five, six pitches. Now I'm trying to get them out of there in three pitches."
Moore's education on the farm appears complete. He now finds himself in contention for a spot in the Rays' rotation -- no easy task considering those spots are currently occupied by James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann.
"[Being in competition is] fun," Moore said. "Would I rather not be in competition for a job, or would I rather be in competition for a job? The way I'm looking at it is I'd rather be in this position than not be in this position. ...
"Everybody here can be, has been, and will be a Major League starter. The fact of the matter is it's between a couple of us for those other spots. And that's all going to play itself out. There are 10 different things that could happen between here and the end of Spring Training. And either way, the squad's going to be solid. And that's what we all want."
If Moore wins a spot, he feels capable of pitching 200 innings. Obviously, the club monitors the number of innings any of its pitchers log, but particularly a young one. Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay's executive vice president of baseball operations, pointed out that Moore has been methodically brought along and built up in a systematic way to prepare him for his eventual ascent to the Majors.
Friedman's statement is supported by the numbers. Moore threw 20 1/3 innings in 2007, followed by seasons of 54 1/3, 123 and 144 2/3, and then last year, 155 combined at Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham before throwing 9 1/3 innings in the Majors.
"There are always concerns when a guy is [as young as Moore] and getting into the grind of a Major League season for the first time," Friedman said. "It's definitely going to be something we're very aware of. Whether he starts the season in the big leagues or Triple-A has yet to be determined."
Shields, who ranks as the elder statesman of the staff, likes what he's seen of Moore.
"He's well beyond his years as far as pitching goes," Shields said. "He's very mature. You don't find that very often with a kid his age. He's willing to step up and take the challenge. I think it's going to be good.
"He's got an unbelievable work ethic. He's in there ... working every single day. He gets his work in. He has his routine. It's really easy on my job, because I don't have to say anything. He's quiet and he gets his work in, gets the job done."
Shields sounded confident that Moore is indeed the real deal, and he has a little bit of fastball envy.
"I would definitely take 97 all day, every day," Shields said.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.