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Sunday, February 26, 2012
Rays' rotation quietly among MLB's best

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The day Luke Scott signed with the Tampa Bay Rays last month, he immediately grabbed his cell phone and dialed up his old friend, Rays ace James Shields.

"Boy, am I glad," a relieved Scott exhaled into that phone, "that I don't have to face YOU GUYS anymore."

Matt Moore
Matt Moore, 22, will be in Tampa Bay's rotation to begin the season.

By "you guys," he didn't just mean the Rays in general, by the way. Or the 79 defensive shifts the Rays put on hitters like him every night. Or even Joe Maddon's latest hairstyle permutation.

No sir. What Scott meant by "you guys" was this: The Best Rotation in Baseball That Just About Nobody Talks About.

Oh, you may not find Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann on the cover of every magazine on the newsstand -- or even on the cover of MLB 2K12.

You won't find them guest-hosting "Saturday Night Live" -- or even chatting it up with Letterman, Leno or Kelly Ripa.

But this is a rotation that already should have staked out some serious claims to fame -- if any fame detectives outside the parking lot of the Trop were actually paying attention, that is. For instance:

• What team led the American League in starting pitching ERA last year? That would be this group -- with an ERA of 3.53, the second-lowest by any AL rotation in the last 20 years.

• Which team's starters piled up more innings than any other American League staff last season? That, too, would be this crew, with 1,058 innings, the most by any AL rotation since the 2005 White Sox.

• And guess which team got 29 starts of eight or more innings with no more than two runs allowed last year? Right you are. That would also be the Rays. It was the most starts like that by any AL rotation since the 1998 Yankees.

Now here's the bad news for the rest of the sport: If you thought they were good last year, watch out.

Due to budget constraints you may have heard about someplace, the Rays did not go out this winter and sign Yu Darvish, C.J. Wilson or even Wei-yin Chen. But that's OK -- since they ARE about to add the minor league pitcher of the year to this rotation.

That would be 22-year-old left-hander Matt Moore, last seen firing seven innings of eye-popping, two-hit, zero-run baseball against the Rangers last fall in a cameo start in Game 1 of the ALDS -- following a minor league season in which his numbers looked like this: 155 innings, 101 hits, 46 walks, 210 strikeouts. Yikes.

So if Moore is everything he's supposed to be, it's terrifying to contemplate what this year's Rays rotation might be capable of. And don't think these guys aren't already contemplating away this spring -- in a big way.

"It's very exciting," said Price, about the closest thing this rotation has to a high-profile figure. "We talk about it all the time. We feel like we threw the ball extremely well last year, and this year we can be even better. One through five, we want to go out there … and we want to set records."

So what kind of records do they want to set, you ask? Doesn't matter, Price said.

"Every pitching record we can set," he said. "As a staff, we want to touch them all."

So those '71 Orioles, '66 Dodgers and '54 Indians can't say they weren't warned. This is a group with big plans and big dreams. And it's talented enough to make most of them come true.

Is it possible, then, that this just might be the best rotation in baseball? It's a topic people inside the game debate all the time. And you might be surprised by the verdict.

"If you're talking one through three or maybe even one through four, I'd still take the Phillies," said one American League GM. "But if you're talking one through seven, it's the Rays. No question."

If we're just comparing hardware and accolades, the Phillies still roll out a rotation that has combined for three Cy Youngs, 11 top-five Cy Young finishes, four 20-win seasons and 13 All-Star trips. The Rays' starters, on the other hand, own no Cy Youngs, two top-five finishes, no 20-win seasons and three total All-Star appearances.

But you know what the Rays do have over the Phillies?

"Youth," Price said. "That's what we have on everybody."

They have so much of that youth, in fact, that they haven't used a single starting pitcher in his 30s since the long-gone Jae Seo headed for the mound on May 24, 2007. Since then, the Rays have started a pitcher in his 20s for 764 consecutive regular-season games, the longest streak like that in baseball history.

Alas, we regret to report that this hallowed streak is about to end, thanks to the arrival of Shields' 30th birthday in December and his inability to come up with a doctored birth certificate since then.

"Hey, I'm glad I messed that streak up," Shields claimed this week. "Now people can stop talking about it."

Asked if he was in danger of any kangaroo court fines for pulling the plug on the one record this rotation has actually set, as opposed to the records these guys just talk about setting, Shields announced: "I'm the elder statesman of this staff. There'll be no kangaroo court fine for me. I guarantee you that."

But while the streak may be about to go the way of the tyrannosaurus rex, the mound artistry by the fast-rising young pitchers who made it possible is alive and well. So let's take a look at this group and mull over how good these guys are already, let alone how much better they could be as their careers get rolling:

James Shields
Shields

Shields: A top-three finisher in the Cy Young voting last year. Threw more complete games (11) than any pitcher in this millennium. One of only five pitchers in baseball to rip off five straight years of 200-plus innings and 150-plus strikeouts. (The others: Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Dan Haren and Matt Cain.) "He obviously had a tremendous year," said the man who put this rotation together, executive vice president for baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "He threw significantly more innings but only about 4 percent more pitches. … I have no doubt that what we saw out of James Shields last year is who he is."

David Price
Price

Price: Last year he became the first pitcher since Tom Glavine (and the first AL pitcher since Bret Saberhagen) to start an All-Star Game, a postseason game and on Opening Day by age 25. Led all AL East pitchers in strikeout ratio. Has gone an astounding 23-9, 2.92 in 42 career starts against the AL East. And he's still ascending. "I think David has a lot of weapons that he's still harnessing," Friedman said, "and trying to figure out exactly when to use what, and how to set hitters up, and which part of the lineup he uses different pitches on versus others. And that's what's so exciting about it -- that as good as he's been, we feel very confident that there's another dimension."

Jeremy Hellickson
Hellickson

Hellickson: Your defending AL rookie of the year. Had the lowest ERA (2.95) by an AL rookie starter since Kevin Appier in 1990. Average against him with runners in scoring position (.167) was the lowest of any AL starter. The question some people ask: Was Hellickson as good as his raw numbers, considering his low strikeout rate (5.8 per 9 IP) and .223 average on balls in play? "I think the BABIP is way overstated in the case of Jeremy Hellickson," Friedman said, "because of how many infield popups he gets and the weak contact he induces. He's got an uncanny feel for how to miss the barrel [of the bat] and how to read hitters and move the ball around."

Matt Moore
Moore

Moore: An excellent bet to be this season's rookie of the year. His absurd minor league totals: 700 career strikeouts, 338 hits. In the first big league start of his life (Sept. 22 at Yankee Stadium), became the first man ever to whiff 11 Yankees in five innings or fewer. In the second big league start of his life (Game 1 of the ALDS), became only the fourth pitcher ever to rip off at least seven shutout innings, while allowing no more than two hits, in his postseason debut. (The others: Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Rick Sutcliffe.) Asked what his fellow pitchers were thinking as they watched Moore blow away the Rangers, Price chuckled: "Can he throw again tomorrow?"

Jeff Niemann
Niemann

Niemann: A humongous human being (6-foot-9, 285 pounds). The only pitcher that tall in history with a better career winning percentage than Niemann (38-23, .623)? Randy Johnson (.646). Niemann is the only Rays starter to visit the disabled list in each of the past two years, but "there have been numerous periods over the last three years," Friedman said, "where he's been our best starting pitcher." When he gets on top of his fastball at his size, "it looks like it's coming out of the catwalks," Friedman quipped.

Wade Davis
Davis

Davis: Had a rough rookie year (11-10, 4.45) after leading all AL starters in wins in 2010. But allowed only two stolen bases all season. And had the fifth-best ground-ball rate in the league. Learned a lot last year, Friedman said, "about the grind of a major league season." So he stepped up his offseason conditioning program this winter and has now "put himself in position to be really strong over the course of the season," Friedman said. Could wind up in the bullpen, depending on how the Rays decide to set up their rotation this spring.

This team's incredible depth is a big reason you heard so many trade rumors swirling around Davis, Niemann, impressive 24-year-old right-hander Alex Cobb and even Shields this winter. But the Rays were never really motivated to deplete that depth -- and they're still not, even though it means Cobb is likely to start the season in the International League and one of their other six starters will have no choice but to head to the bullpen.

"We don't look at this like having three third basemen," Friedman said. "Being seven or eight deep in your rotation is something we feel like is going to be necessary to get through a 162-game schedule. And with the razor-thin margin in this division, that could be the difference between playing in October and not."

But if this team does need nine or 10 starters to get through the season, that, too, would be an upset -- because durability is just one more quality that has separated this rotation from the pack. Consider this:

• Over the past four seasons, the Rays' primary five starters (in that particular season) have started an amazing 91.5 percent of all their regular-season games (593 of 648). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the highest percentage in the big leagues, just ahead of the Giants (90.6).

• And in those four seasons, the Rays have needed to use a TOTAL of only 13 different starting pitchers. That's three fewer than any other team in baseball. Just for comparison's sake, the other four AL East teams have run 101 starters out there in that time. And the Orioles alone have ripped through 30.

That's a tribute to the personalized training regimens put together by one of the best-run teams in baseball. But it's also a testament to "the work ethic of our starters," Friedman said.

And it isn't just two or three of these guys putting in that work. It's the entire group. But then, that's the way this rotation rolls, on and off the field.

"One of the special things we do here," Shields said, "is we feed off each other."

You will never, ever watch a Rays game anymore in which you won't find all four starters who aren't pitching that day watching every pitch from the top step of the dugout. And that, as you've no doubt noticed, is NOT how it works everywhere.

"One thing we have that I think is really important," said Maddon, "is the camaraderie among the group. They really pull for one another. If you watch our starters walk off the field between innings, they'll be greeted [by the other four] every time. … They're not upstairs getting rubbed down or watching TV. They're down there supporting each other. And I think that's a big part of our strength."

On other staffs, older staffs -- staffs filled with been-there, done-that, veteran starters -- the vibe tends to be more business-like. And that's fine, too. In fact, when asked what the big advantage of youth is, Price laughed and said: "Honestly, I'm not sure."

"You look at a team like the Phillies," Price said. "I know [Roy] Halladay is a workhorse. And Cliff Lee. I know a lot about their work ethics, and the time they put in. That's why they have all the accolades they've received, and they deserve every bit of it. I feel like, if we could emulate one staff, it would be theirs."

But if he could rank all the rotations in baseball, 1 through 30, which one would David Price rank No. 1? Guess who? (Hint: Not the Phillies.)

"I'd place us first," he said. "Absolutely."

And if he needs an expert witness, well, there's always Luke Scott.

"They may not have the same fame and notoriety as others," said the newest Ray of the starters he's now eternally grateful to find working for his side. "But I'll put this rotation up against anybody."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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