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BEST IN BASEBALL?

James Shields, left, and David Price have been the Rays’ top two starters, but there isn’t much dropoff after that.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

James Shields, left, and David Price have been the Rays’ top two starters, but there isn’t much dropoff after that.

There are many obvious indicators of what the Rays starting pitchers have going for them: Talent. Physical ability. Age. Health. Experience, to a degree. And, if you listen to David Price, remarkable good looks. • But it is more than just their individual skills, more than the lightning in Matt Moore and Price's arms, more than the deception of James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson's changeups, more than the expanse of Jeff Niemann's repertoire, that will make them the great rotation — potentially the best in the majors — that they are touted to be. • It's the depth in having five legit starters. The ability to pitch deep into games. And the fierce competitiveness that drives them.

"I think it's as good if not the best in the league."

Kelly Shoppach, current Red Sox and ex-Rays catcher

One way to quantify the depth of the Rays rotation is to look at who didn't make it. Alex Cobb and Alex Torres, who would be at least in the mix for most teams, were sent back to Triple-A Durham, and Wade Davis, who won 11 games last year, was moved to the bullpen.

Another is to look at who did. Niemann, after going 36-21 the past three seasons, had to beat out Davis just to hang on to the fifth spot behind Shields, who was third in the AL Cy Young voting last year; Price, who was second the year before; Hellickson, who won the 2011 AL rookie of the year award; and Moore, who is a leading candidate to be the top rookie this year.

"We've got five guys who could start anywhere in the big leagues," Price said. "There isn't a team in the big leagues that wouldn't take any of our one-through-five, and I feel that's pretty special. Probably the Phillies can say that, but I don't know of any other team."

The five starters present differently — "So many weapons," Moore said — but each is capable of the same result.

"You have to have the ability to throw the ball hard enough or have a breaking ball that's good enough to get major-league hitters to swing and miss within the strike zone," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We have guys able to do that."

"They're as good as they come. … I can't think of any team with five guys as consistent as those five. … I'll take their five guys over the Phillies five guys. Wouldn't you?"

Buck Martinez, Blue Jays TV analyst, former big-league player/manager

Every team wants its starters to work deep into games, maximizing the innings thrown by the best arms and minimizing the wear and tear on the bullpen when possible.

Just ask around what makes a good rotation:

Orioles manager Buck Showalter: "The consistency of getting deep in games."

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle: "The No. 1 thing you want from a starting rotation is length."

Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild: "Guys that can take you deep into games."

The difference is that the Rays do it, evidenced by their starters' 1,058 innings last year, most in the AL since 2005, and an average of nearly 62/3 per game.

"We give our team a pretty good chance to win every time out," Price said.

Having good pitchers is obviously part of it. But so is having young, athletic and healthy pitchers, and a top-notch athletic training staff led by Ron Porterfield that keeps them on the mound or gets them back quickly. Over the past four seasons, they've used only 13 starters, three fewer than the next team (and 17 fewer than the Orioles).

"Beyond the traditional stat line of looking at their ERA and their games won, the hallmark of a good rotation is the ability to effectively eat innings," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "And that's what our guys do so well."

"They're near the top. They do a lot of things well."

Curtis Granderson, Yankees centerfielder.

The starters are close, hanging out together on the field, gathering for a casual throwing session or huddling in the dugout during a crucial game, and sometimes days off, for golf or a dinner. Shields is the standard bearer for the work they put in, Price the head cheerleader, all with good makeup.

"We feel like we make each other better," Shields said.

The camaraderie among them is one element of their success. The competitiveness among them is another, driving each to keep up with the others.

"We love to go out there and compete for each other," Hellickson said.

"Competitive pride is the best way to say it," Niemann said. "We're all rooting hands down for everyone to have success, but at the same time we all want to go out there and do better than the next guy and the guy before us.

"It's just kind of that continual pushing. There's just a one-way street. There's no room for anything: If it's a bad game, I've got to right the ship. If it's a good game, I've got to keep it going. It's always, Next. Ahead. Push, push, push."

"All their starters are great starters. Every time you play them you know you've got to pack your lunch."

J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays catcher.

The Rays position players usually laugh and smile when asked about their starters, and why not since they know they don't have to face them.

"We're all big-league ballplayers and everybody is good, but obviously you get those rotations where you get to the (Nos.) 3-4-5 starters and, honestly, it may be a little easier after the 1 and 2," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "But here, it's nothing like that. … You could put those five guys names in a hat and close your eyes and pick one and you're going to be just fine with whoever takes the ball that day."

Staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com

BEST IN BASEBALL? 04/05/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 6, 2012 6:23am]
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