PORT CHARLOTTE — David Price can be smooth. He can be sophisticated. He can be a role model and a spokesman. He can be silly, loud and all kinds of funny. He can be a pretty darn good pitcher, too.
And now the Rays need him to be something else:
A leader for a starting staff feeling the void of James Shields' departure.
Price says he is up for the task. His manager, coaches and teammates are confident he can handle it.
And Shields, who was traded to Kansas City, delivers his own endorsement.
"You know what — if I'd have been traded two years ago, then I would say those guys have a problem," Shields, 31, said. "But I believe that he's matured so much over the last year, even the last two years.
"He's really becoming a man. I know he's a goofball, and I want him to stay that way the rest of his life, because that's what makes him very, um, contagious. He really rubs off on people the right way.
"But he's also become more of a leader. There's no doubt in my mind he's capable of doing that."
Leadership can be difficult to define, especially in baseball and even more so in the narrow scope of a pitching rotation. Just being good is not the criterion.
It can be as obvious as setting an example with a demanding workout regimen and as subtle as whispering a suggestion on how to work out a problem. It can be as simple as a reminder of team rules and as complex as a refresher on contract clauses. It can mean quietly answering a question, or loudly addressing a group. It can be instruction, strategy, even restaurant recommendations.
All of it can matter.
"I don't think that it's overblown; it could be a serious concern because you've lost, in my opinion, your undisputed leader," pitching coach Jim Hickey said.
"But I also know David has been side by side with him for the last two-three years, and there's not a doubt in my mind also that David will step right into that role and provide exactly what we need."
Whereas Evan Longoria said earlier this spring that he was making a concerted effort to be more of an active leader in the clubhouse, his fellow 27-year-old, Price, said it's a role he is accustomed to from his youth league, Blackmon High, Vanderbilt University and minor-league teams.
And it's one, no matter the eight-figure salary, national celebrity and shelf of awards, he welcomes.
"It's not like a guy just steps up to be a leader," Price said. "Leadership happens. Leaders don't try and be leaders. That's the best way I can say it. I feel like you just kind of evolve in the leadership role.
"The guys that can handle it, they relish those leadership roles. The guys that can't, they kind of shy away from it. I'm not shying away from it. I'm the same person every day I feel like, and these guys know they can ask me anything. That's how we do it."
Price and Shields do things differently. Where Shields could be more direct and occasionally loud, Price is lower key and rarely confrontational.
When pitchers Alex Cobb and Matt Moore forgot their rookie responsibilities to bring liquid refreshments from the clubhouse to the bus for a ride to the airport last season, Shields made sure everyone knew. He wrote out a humorous "apology" and ordered them to get on the plane PA system and read it to the group.
But when Moore broke one of the Rays' few rules by wearing shorts to the ballpark on the road (in Texas), Price took note but kept it on the down low, passing the chance to make Moore an example and instead sending him a text message.
"I'm not going to blow him up and embarrass him in front of the team," Price said. "That's not my style, that's not the way I go about it."
Price learned from his own rookie faux pas, remembering when Dan Wheeler one day quietly told him he wasn't within dress code. And he obviously learned from Shields.
Early in camp, Price would finish his workout then bounce around the fields and watch others throw. Within a few days, the other starters had all joined him in a small posse making the rounds and lending support.
Another day, Price stopped a couple of young pitchers who were headed inside with their cleats on, telling them to take them off first so it was less work for the clubhouse staff.
"Those are the kind of things that cannot be overstated," manager Joe Maddon said. "Stuff like that, that goes so far."
Maddon raves about the example Price sets with his work, his attitude and, on what is often a me-world, his selfless personality, noting what "David does that is unique to a young superstar like himself is how much he obviously supports everybody."
Add in his sense of humor, energy level, humble nature and openness and Maddon said it is quite a special package.
"He's all of that," Maddon said. "He's a Cy Young Award winner, and he's all of this on top of that."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]