If Rays fans don't see James Shields or Matt Garza pitching in games during the first week or so of spring training, they shouldn't worry.
It's all part of the master plan.
With one of the ballclub's biggest offseason objectives protecting the collective health of a young starting rotation that logged career highs in innings during a World Series run, pitching coach Jim Hickey said he hopes extra rest and recovery will make for a repeat performance.
Hickey said some pitchers may not pick up a ball until Jan. 1 (two weeks later than usual), and he tentatively lessened their load in spring training. Some may get one fewer start. Some relievers, such as J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler, could see fewer appearances.
Hickey has seen the cautionary tales: Several pennant-winning teams this decade, including the Red Sox (2004), White Sox (2005) and Tigers (2006), had their staffs battle injuries or regress the following season.
"If you look back at recent history, 2002, 2003 and the teams that made it deep into the playoffs, there's been a significant drop off in the performance of the pitchers over the next year, whether that's due to fatigue or injury," Hickey said. "It's something you try to combat. I don't think there's a real science to it."
Hickey said starting pitchers typically build up their arms in a progression where by the end of spring training, they're throwing seven innings and 105 pitches. For certain guys, such as Garza and Shields, they'll probably instead build up to six innings and 90 pitches.
Though Scott Kazmir and David Price had stints on the disabled list that lessened their final inning total (a "blessing in disguise," Hickey said), there's a chance the left-handers could be part of that same plan.
That will allow them to make their first spring starts a week to 10 days later, with their appearances likely taken by the likes of RHPs Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot and Wade Davis. Hickey said the Rays could bring a few more pitchers to camp to accommodate the workload.
Hickey's concern is that the starters don't feel as sharp at the beginning of the season. But it could be a willing trade-off to keep them strong for another potential postseason run.
HOT STOVE: Though they've yet to make a big move, executive VP Andrew Friedman said the Rays have touched base with several free agents and "everyone on our target list is still available." The Rays, whose biggest offseason needs are sorting out their RF/DH situation and bolstering their bullpen (maybe adding a left-handed reliever), have reportedly showed interest in OF Raul Ibanez, 36, a left-handed slugger who hit .293 with 23 homers for the Mariners. But without mentioning names, Friedman said "we cast a wide net." The Rays do remain in continued dialogue with free agent OF Rocco Baldelli.
MISCELLANY: The Rays expect to find out this week whether RHP Troy Percival will need surgery on either his back or knee. … The Toby Hall Foundation is holding a golf tournament Friday at Westchase to raise money for a Miracle League Field in Hillsborough County. Former Buc Mike Alstott, Wheeler and White Sox C A.J. Pierzynski plan to participate. To add a foursome ($750), call (813) 263-5363.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.