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The Durham Bulls dilemma: who is the starting rotation?

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The Tampa Bay Rays have long been know for their young pitching. With the recent acquisition of Jose DeLeon, the Durham Bulls starting rotation may be the best in all of the minors.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays were already stacked with some pretty nice pitching prospects in their minor league system. A few trades the past couple of weeks have made them stronger. What is most exciting for the Rays — and frightening for the rest of the American League East — is that almost all of them are ready for Triple-A.

It is a good thing that the Rays are known for patience with their pitching prospects, because there is simply not enough room in Durham to start them all.

THE RETURNERS

Neither of the top two returners are elite pitching prospects, in fact Austin Pruitt isn't even in John Sickels' 2017 Rays Top 20. Both Pruitt and Jaime Schultz deserve merit however.

John ranked Schultz the Rays eighth best prospect and had this to say of his breakout 2016:

... mid-90s fastball with excellent strikeout rate and low hit rates; power curveball is another strikeout pitch; although used as a starter thus far his 5-10 size results in reliever projection from many observers; you have to love the dominance ratios but the walks need to come down some to maximize his outcomes.

Schultz used that high strikeout rate to punch out an International League best 163 batters in 130.2 innings. It was a career-best strikeout rate, to match his career-best walk rate. The problem with the walk rate is that it is still too high, at 4.68 per nine. Still, with a FIP (3.45) lower than his ERA (3.58) there is a lot to like about the 25 year old righty, whether he sticks as a starter or shifts to the bullpen.

(video courtesy of 2080 Baseball)

Pruitt was the Bulls Pitcher of the Year in 2016. Now 27, he isn't very high on prospect lists, and a questionable "prospect" at all, but he has shown that he could contribute at the big league level. Like Schultz, Pruitt is small, standing at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds. Unlike, Schultz, Pruitt seems to have good command of his arsenal. Last season he struck out 8.24 per nine while walking just 1.49 per nine. That number was no fluke, as he has only walked more than two per nine at just one stop in his career.

Jacob Faria has seemingly been a top Rays pitching prospect forever. He had another spectacular season last year, finishing it out with a 13-game stint at Durham. Here's what John had to say when he ranked him the sixth best Rays prospect for 2017:

... fits Rays pitcher stereotype to a T; fastball varies between 88 and 95 depending on when you see him; plays up even at lower velocity due to excellent change-up; reports on breaking stuff vary but high strikeout rate is a promising sign; needs to lower walks and needs another half-year of Triple-A; workhorse potential.

The 23 year old Faria was good in his Durham debut. He went 4-4 with a 3.72 ERA and a 64-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He limited opponents to a .190 batting average. It is alarming that he posted the highest walk rate of his career (4.26) and second highest FIP (4.09), but there is simply no denying the goods are there.

THE NEWCOMERS

The big gun that arrived last week, of course, was Jose De Leon. De Leon would have likely been starting the year in most other big league rotations. The Rays decided not to move Chris Archer, and thus kept a relatively young rotation in tact. De Leon could likely start the season as the Bulls ace, but be in Tampa by May.

What else do you need to know about De Leon at this point? John had him ranked as the Los Angeles Dodgers No. 1 prospect prior to the trade. That is an impressive honor.

... posted 2.61 ERA in 86 innings in Triple-A with 111/20 K/BB and 61 hits; 6.35 ERA in 17 MLB innings with 15/7 K/BB; fastball 90-95, showed pinpoint location with it in Triple-A; mixes in plus change-up; breaking ball looked plus to me in Triple-A but was less impressive in majors; his stock is down a bit with some analysts but I still see him as an elite prospect due to superior command of three quality pitches and excellent performance record; number two or strong number three starter assuming continued good health.

Was De Leon's big league debut a bit on the nightmarish side? Sure. His track record in the minors — one with the ability to control the strike zone, limit walks and strike batters out by the boat load — is enough, however. De Leon will be a top of the rotation, big league pitcher. It's just a matter of when.

Ryan Yarbrough will be a welcomed addition. John had him pegged as a 2016 sleeper in his Prospect Book:

Yarbrough held that velocity in 2015, even reaching a little higher occasionally, so the improved fastball looks like a permanent change. He has a plus change-up but still needs a little more definition with his curveball, which is inconsistent. Although he lost a few weeks with a strained groin last year, he has the size and command to be a durable inning-eating workhorse type. He was certainly a real steal in the '14 draft.

All Yarbrough did last season was take home Southern League Pitcher of the Year honors for the league champion Jacksonville Generals. He went 12-4 with a 2.95 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. He is not known as a big strikeout guy — 6.94 per nine last year — but he also limits walks (his 2.17 per nine last season was on the high side). With nothing left to prove in Double-A, he is Durham bound for 2017.

(video courtesy of minorleaguebaseball)

THE PROMOTIONS

Brent Honeywell is one of the most exciting pitching prospects in baseball. The 22 year old was the Rays Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Armed with his infamous screwball and a mid-to-upper 90s-fastball, John has Honeywell as the Rays No. 2 prospect. His age and experience (a mere 59.1 innings above A-ball) will likely leave him waiting for the first promotion before he makes his Durham debut.

Chih-Wei Hu has proven to be a steal for the Rays. Acquired for Kevin Jepsen, Hu led the Southern League in ERA last season. Here's what John had to say about the Rays No. 7 prospect's arsenal:

...fastball in low-90s but mixes well with broad arsenal including change-up, palmball, slider, curve; throws strikes, excellent pitching instincts; should be ready sometime this year as possible fourth starter but should not be under-estimated.

(video courtesy of Baseball America)

Just 23 years old, the righty made one uninspiring start in Durham last season. Hu should be the fifth starter for them to start the season.

Taylor Guerrieri also had a strong season for Montgomery. The 24 year old righty has always been stingy with runs and hits allowed, but needs to improve both his strikeout and walk rates. He lost some velocity on his fastball last season, but armed with a sinker, curve and change, he gets out of jams with an extremely high ground out-to-air out rate (2.43 over his career). Look for his Durham debut as well.