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Tampa Bay Rays say youthful starting rotation doesn't need veteran leadership

ST. PETERSBURG — Oh, there definitely are times when you can tell how young the Rays rotation is.

Like when James Shields, the supposed old man of the staff at 28, pulls on his beanie and Tap Out T-shirt, chugs an energy drink and morphs into California skater dude. When David Price glides around the clubhouse hip-hop cool talking video games and music. When Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis are going on about the great outdoorsman thing. And pretty much any time on a non-game day Matt Garza opens his mouth. (Kidding! Kinda!)

In a word?

"Interesting," manager Joe Maddon says. "They're just an interesting group."

They're a group — all 24 to 28 years old, only Garza having experience elsewhere — that some would suggest could use a chaperone, a veteran starter brought in to show the will and the way to be successful and to absorb some of the pressure and attention. That's kind of what the Orioles, even without the expected battles of a pennant race looming, did in acquiring Kevin Millwood, whom they'll trot out for Tuesday's opener at Tropicana Field.

But that is, to use Maddon's word, what makes the Rays' five even more interesting: They have the right mix of experience and personality to make such a move unnecessary.

First, they consider Shields, even with only 3½ seasons and 118 big-league starts (plus four in the postseason), a tremendous leader by example. And while Maddon jokes "you can argue about Garza in so many different ways," the 26-year-old right-hander certainly showed his stuff with an MVP performance in the 2008 ALCS.

"Those guys might be young, but they've experienced a lot," veteran reliever Dan Wheeler said. "Some of the pitches they had to make in '08; they really grew up as pitchers right there."

Plus, Maddon said, "Niemann, Price and Davis stand out to me as being young and mature. They can handle themselves pretty good in spite of their lack of experience and age.

"Of course you'd like to have that other guy, but I don't think it really impacts us to not have that guy. I really don't think we're missing that."

With youth comes health, strength, power, work ethic, drive and the potential for 200 innings apiece, all traits the Rays value. And, well, value. The combined salaries of the five starters is just more than $8 million, second-lowest in baseball after Toronto and less than the O's will pay Millwood — for his first 23 starts. (And about what the Yankees will pay CC Sabathia for his first 12.)

Shields likes to wear the leader's crown — as well as the costume gray beard he slipped on this spring. Garza is considered a potential superstar. Niemann (even though he's 27), Price and Davis (both 24) are on the way up.

The Rays see them growing up and growing together, at least until finances force the band to be broken up. The pitchers kind of like the camaraderie — as well as the competition.

"We all push each other," Niemann said. "It's all friendly competition, but at the same time we're all striving for the same goal."

And when they do share time together?

"All five have different personalities, that's for sure," Price said. "I won't be going fishing with Wade, I won't be going long-boarding with Shields, I won't be watching cartoons with Garza. I do my own thing. But we all hang out; we're a close staff."

Maybe closer than he thinks. "I've already talked to Niemann about this," Davis said. "We're going to get Price out there this winter. Now that's going to be interesting."

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

Tampa Bay Rays say youthful starting rotation doesn't need veteran leadership 04/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010 1:34pm]
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