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Thanks to starting rotation, Tampa Bay Rays still have hope

PORT CHARLOTTE — The payroll has been cut more than 40 percent, and still you have reason for hope on the first day of spring training.

The best leftfielder in the league has jumped to one division rival, and the closer has gone to another. The pitcher with the franchise's only no-hitter was traded, and the team MVPs from 2004, '06, '07, '08 and '10 all left the building this winter.

Five free agents who departed — Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour — will make more money than all 25 guys left behind.

And still you have reason for hope when pitchers and catchers report this morning.

Obviously, Evan Longoria has something to do with that. Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton, too. Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon should be able to help, and Kyle Farnsworth had better be able to help.

But, really, there is one overriding reason for optimism in Rays camp this spring. It's the same reason the Rays won a pennant in 2008 and an American League East title in 2010. It is the starting rotation. And it will have to carry much of the load for Tampa Bay in 2011.

"That one thought helped me through a lot of this process this winter," Rays manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday. "Knowing that we were going to have those five guys, and that they are as good as they are, and they are as competitive as they are, and they are capable of setting us up for success in this division. If you don't have that rotation, honestly, all of this other stuff really would have bothered me a lot."

The rotation is not as rich as Boston's. It is not as decorated as Philadelphia's. It may not be as talented as a handful of other staffs. But it has been more consistent, more dependable, more durable than any rotation in the game the past three years. In fact, it has been one of the most dependable rotations the American League has seen in a generation.

Since 2008, only 11 different pitchers have started a game for the Rays. The last AL team that went three consecutive years with fewer starters was the Baltimore Orioles from 1980-82, and they had the benefit of a strike-shortened season.

Take the top five starters on the staff in each of the past three years, and they have combined to start more than 91 percent of Tampa Bay's games. That essentially means they've missed about a dozen starts a year due to injuries or rest.

"The starting rotation is certainly a big part of our optimism. Not only that, they've been a big part of our past success when you look back at 2008, 2009 and 2010, and the fact that they made as many starts as they did," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "That our starters have been healthy, for the most part, I think speaks volumes about their makeup and their work ethic and their competitiveness, as well as our training staff.

"It's everything to us. We don't have the resources to go out on the market and sign Cliff Lee, so we need to have depth one through five. Very capable starters who can pitch innings and get swings and misses."

The rotation has fluctuated the past three years — Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir and Edwin Jackson have been traded and Andy Sonnanstine has moved to the bullpen — but the minor-league system has consistently filled the gaps.

At this point, all five starters are under 30 and have been drafted by the Rays. Year after year, it seems, the Rays have sent another starter into the rotation. James Shields came aboard in 2006, David Price and Jeff Niemann in 2009 and Wade Davis in 2010. This season, Jeremy Hellickson is set to replace Garza.

Which is exactly how Friedman envisioned it when Stu Sternberg put him in charge of the franchise in 2005. As a small-revenue team, the Rays were not going to consistently match the Yankees or Red Sox in the batting order, so they focused on starting pitching.

"When we started, the No. 1 priority for us was starting pitching and developing starting pitching and having enough depth and quality throughout to be able to have success in this division," Friedman said. "If you look at our minor-league rosters this year, they are loaded with good starting pitching prospects. And, again, they are only prospects, and we appreciate the attrition rate, but that's why we have so many of them. It's everything for us in the current time, and in the future."

The basic plan for the Rays is to make sure the rotation is in good hands then go outside the organization to fill in the other holes. This is how they came up with Troy Percival and Soriano and Farnsworth to solidify the bullpen at various times. It is how they signed Cliff Floyd, Pat Burrell, Damon and Ramirez to add punch to the lineup.

The names and faces have been interchangeable since 2008, but the concept remains the same. The Rays have begun each season with a fair dose of hope because of the starting rotation.

"We have zero chance of doing it differently," Friedman said.

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

Thanks to starting rotation, Tampa Bay Rays still have hope 02/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 10:16pm]
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