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Plethora of pitching gives Tampa Bay Rays plenty of options

PORT CHARLOTTE

To determine the growth of a franchise, you measure 60 feet, 6 inches at a time.

These days at Camp Armed-and-Dangerous, the pitchers travel in packs. They are everywhere. Tall pitchers, short pitchers. Righties, lefties. Pitchers with production, pitchers with potential. You cannot throw a baseball in any direction without hitting a pitcher, which is dangerous, because these days, the Rays' pitchers could throw it back much, much harder.

With some teams, this is the time for pitchers and catchers. For the Rays, it is the time of pitchers and pitchers and pitchers and more pitchers and a catcher or two.

For crying out loud, the biggest problem the Rays face in spring training is figuring out what to do with this glut of pitchers.

Unless, you remember the way it used to be. Then it doesn't sound like much of a problem at all.

In other words, it hasn't always been like this. Dewon Brazelton used to work here. And Wilson Alvarez. And Bryan Rekar. And all the rest of Murdered Row, that haggard group of shot-putters who once attempted to pitch in the name of Tampa Bay.

Rays manager Joe Maddon should remember. In his first two games on the job, his pitchers gave up 25 runs. One trip through the rotation, five games, and they gave up 41. Welcome to town.

This just in: This staff is better. Spectators in the outfield bleachers are better.

Wednesday morning, the Rays pitchers stood in a line in the bullpen area and threw, smoothly and fluidly, and the sound as eight baseballs hit eight mitts was something like a shooting range. These days, no one has to call time so the slower fastballs can catch up.

It was an impressive sight, this collection of arms. There was James Shields, who was third in last year's Cy Young voting. There was David Price, who was second the year before. There was Matt Moore, last year's Topps/minor-league player of the year. Jeremy Hellickson, last year's rookie of the year, didn't throw. Neither did Jeff Niemann, who has three double-digit win seasons and is in a battle with Wade Davis, who has two.

These days, the Rays can match fastballs with almost anyone. There is nothing that better demonstrates the turnaround of this franchise. Think of the guys who probably won't make this roster — guys like Alex Cobb, Alex Torres and Chris Archer — and you cannot help but wonder how prominent they would have been on that 2006 staff. No. 3 in the rotation? No. 4?

Think of it like this: Most major-league teams would swap rotations with Tampa Bay. A few might even offer to swap with Durham.

Then there is the loser-leaves-the-rotation battle between Davis and Niemann. If you have followed the Rays over the years, it is staggering these two are fighting for the No. 5 spot. Davis has won 23 games over the past two seasons. Niemann has won 36 over the past three. Most seasons, that would give a pitcher a death grip on a starting position.

Not anymore. These days, the best Rays starter may get in the discussion for baseball's top pitching award.

So here's a question: Now that the Rays have flirted with the Cy Young twice, who is going to be the first guy to win it?

"Price," says Shields. "He's been there before. He has that kind of stuff."

"Shields," says Price. "Because he's the man."

"Price," said Matt Moore. "Because he's a stud. Shields could win it, too. You take a couple of good starts and turn them into really good starts, and both of them are right there."

"Moore," said Hellickson.

"Shields," said Niemann. "He's about to turn 30. I'll throw him a bone."

"Chris Archer," said Davis. "He's got a good arm."

For a tiebreaking vote, look to J.P. Howell, a former starter himself. "That's a tough question," he said. "I'll go with Price. I have to."

The point is not who turns out to be correct. The point is that, for the Rays, excellence is finally a multiple choice proposition. There is Shields with his stubborn competitiveness and Price with his explosive fastball and Moore with his staggering potential and Hellickson with his poise.

Say what you will about a more powerful batting order. These are the players who are expected to keep the Rays in the race. These are the people who are supposed to calm the bats of the Yankees and Red Sox.

These days, it doesn't seem like too much to ask, does it?

Plethora of pitching gives Tampa Bay Rays plenty of options 02/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 11:07pm]
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