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Tampa Bay Rays will make wise decision by starting pitching prospect Price in minors

PORT CHARLOTTE — Let's be clear on this from the beginning:

Nobody in contention for the No. 5 spot in the Rays rotation is as good as David Price. And I don't mean that in some vague, gee-what-a-prospect sort of way. Forget about tomorrow; Price is the best the Rays have today. And his spring debut Tuesday was just the latest tease, with Price striking out three Toronto hitters in two innings of hitless relief.

So, if all of this is true, why is there a strong possibility he begins the season in Triple-A Durham? Why not hand him the ball on April 11 and begin taking bets on whether the Rays can win back-to-back Rookie of the Year Awards?

Unfortunately, you're not going to like the answer. Heck, not even the people in charge of answers seem thrilled about this one. Because, honestly, life would be sweeter for the Rays if they could pencil Price in at the back of the rotation and not worry about the number of pitches it takes to get three outs, or the number of innings he might accumulate by September.

But, like it or not, those are factors. And, barring some funky solution like a six-man rotation, those factors will probably lead to Price spending a month or so in the minor leagues.

Here's the basic issue:

The front office is fanatical when it comes to protecting the arms of pitching prospects. The Rays did extensive research a few years back and discovered younger pitchers were at greater risk for arm troubles when they had an increase of more than 20 percent in innings pitched from one season to the next.

Considering Price's long-term value, it seems unlikely the Rays will allow him to jump from around 130 innings in 2008 to more than 200 innings this season. They'd probably prefer 170. They might push 180. Anything else is a game of roulette.

So then the question becomes, do you want to burn a lot of those innings in April or do you prefer to save his arm for September? Because, if he starts the season in Durham, Price's innings are much easier to manage. It doesn't matter if a Durham game is tied at 1 in the fourth or fifth inning; you can still pull Price because you aren't as concerned about winning or putting an undue burden on the bullpen. That's harder to justify in the big leagues.

The other consideration is just how ready Price is to pitch every fifth day in the American League. He may already be Tampa Bay's best option as the No. 5 starter, but that doesn't mean he is without flaw.

Of course, your memory might say otherwise. You think of Price, and you think of him blowing away J.D. Drew with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. That night, it seemed as if Price's future was running a year or two ahead of schedule.

But there is a difference between facing a handful of batters out of the bullpen, and being in the rotation. A reliever can get by with two types of pitches, and so the Rays told Price to ignore his changeup when he was called up last season.

When you're 6 feet 6, left-handed and throw in the mid 90s, you can get by with a fastball and slider in small doses. And, for the most part, Price was wicked in his shorter appearances.

But, for a little perspective, consider his effectiveness in extended outings. He threw 5 1/3 innings in relief against the Yankees and 5 1/3 innings in his lone start against the Orioles. The first time through the lineup, the Yankees and Orioles had a .111 on-base percentage against Price. On the second and third trips through the lineup, the on-base percentage nearly tripled to .320.

That's a terribly small sample size, but it does suggest Price's dominance in relief will not immediately transfer to the same type of success when he is pitching every fifth day in the rotation.

As a starter, Price needs command of all three of his pitches. The fastball is obvious, the slider is big-league quality and the changeup has looked brilliant according to those who have watched his bullpen sessions in the spring. Even so, his control — and thus his pitch count — is still a consideration.

Price breezed through Class A and Double A last season but was less efficient when he faced more patient hitters in Triple A. In his four starts at Durham, he made 17.5 pitches per inning, which is not a good precursor for the majors.

So the idea of Price refining his pitches while managing his innings at Durham sounds like an appealing option, even for a team that needs to play every day as if the pennant is on the line.

"We want him to be very successful right out of the chute, without any hesitation or backward movements," manager Joe Maddon said. "We don't want him going back and forth between here and Triple A. When he gets here, we want him to stay here for a very long time. That's why we want everything to be as perfect as possible."

Unlike last season, with Evan Longoria, money will not be the overriding factor in the Price decision. He will probably be under the Rays' control through the end of 2014, and the only way the team buys another year is if Price stays in the minors for a good chunk of this season, which is a worst-case scenario.

Instead, the Rays have to balance their pennant chances in 2009, along with what is best for the franchise and Price long-term. I suppose there is still a chance the team decides Price is so overwhelmingly good right now that it keeps him as the No. 5 starter and tries limiting his innings by turning a long reliever into an occasional sixth starter.

But that kind of maneuvering would seem more counterproductive than just allowing him to get off to a good start in Triple A, particularly when the Rays currently have other viable options for the No. 5 spot in big-league camp.

The question is not if Price is Tampa Bay's best option.

Just when he becomes the best option.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays will make wise decision by starting pitching prospect Price in minors 03/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 7:04am]

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