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Three pitching aces give Tampa Bay Rays the upper hand

BY MARC TOPKIN | Times Staff Writer PORT CHARLOTTE

One way to see how special and unique it is for the Rays to have three young potential aces in James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza is to look around their clubhouse. That's a reason they could trade 14-game winner Edwin Jackson during the offseason. It's why they can decide to send uber-prospect David Price back to the minors solely on what's best for his development. And it's how they can stick to their philosophy of building with pitching and defense despite competing with the big boys, and big spenders, of the American League. "Simply said, we feel like the way to compete in this division is through pitching," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Having those three guys anchor our staff allowed us to do what we did last year and puts us in position to have the plans that we do for '09, and as we look ahead.

"Pitching is how we're going to win the American League East, and those big three are a very large part of it."

Another way is to look around the other clubhouses and see how many teams, laden with overpriced underachieving veterans, facing a mound of questions or desperately seeking to fill out their rotations, would be thrilled to have one or two of them, much less three.

They're all young, with Shields the oldest at 27. They're all seemingly healthy and durable. They're all under team control through at least 2012 (and together this season don't even make $8 million). And they're all pretty good.

"Any of these three guys could be anyone's opening day starter," manager Joe Maddon said.

"Do you know how fortunate we are to have those guys? We have three aces on our staff," first baseman Carlos Peña said. "These guys are all No. 1s, and we have them all in our rotation."

Or as Toronto manager Cito Gaston said: "Those are three pretty good damn pitchers right there."

They didn't just happen to end up there, of course. Shields overcame injuries and doubt as he came up through the Rays system, and Kazmir and Garza, both 25, were acquired in trades. The Rays have been careful in handling them and have taken care of Shields and Kazmir with long-term deals, while Garza, for now, remains a pre-arbitration bargain.

"I don't want to say they're the envy of baseball," Boston manager Terry Francona said, "but you look around and I think you understand the point I'm making: They're young, durable, under contract — that's what a lot of teams are trying to do. You'll sacrifice some of the experience knowing if they pitch 200 innings they're going to get their experience, because the durability is huge. So many teams in the past you see go out and spend all this money on pitching. … I think now you'll see a lot of organizational philosophies going in that direction."

And why not?

"It's a tremendous benefit," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said, "because you have so much certainty, at least as much as you can in this business: guys who are under control contractually and guys who are also relatively young and should continue to get better."

Last season's payoff, despite Kazmir and Garza spending time on the disabled list, was impressive: a combined 37 wins, 3.59 ERA, 90 starts and 552 innings.

The potential for more, with Kazmir saying his arm has never felt better, with Garza having the confidence boost of spending his first full season in the majors, with Shields more comfortable, is even more intriguing.

"When teams look at their schedule and they have to face us for three games and they see they've got me, Shields and Garza, I guarantee they don't like it," Kazmir said. "They know what to expect: It's going to be one after another just getting after it."

"It's something they dread," Garza said, "and something we look forward to."

"A hopefully lethal combination," Shields said.

All three understand that with only 98 wins among them, they have more to prove. And if they forget, they have only to look over to Troy Percival's corner of the clubhouse.

When it was suggested last spring that the three were comparable to the game's previous best young trios, Percival had a pointed response, wearing a customized jersey that listed the Rays pitchers above the names of former Atlanta aces Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and John Smoltz.

The jersey is in a box somewhere, but the message lingered. "You might want to ask him," Shields said. ''I think we might have showed him a little bit."

Just a little it turns out. "The best thing they did was they continued to get better," Percival said. "They all had the stuff, but the way that they competed and learned how to pitch, it was pretty fun to watch."

But he's still not buying the comparisons to the Braves, or the A's of Tim Hudson-Mark Mulder-Barry Zito, or any of the others.

"They're similar in only one aspect in that every time they go out, you have a chance to win," Percival said. "But those other guys proved it year in year out with consistency and stuff, and that's yet to be determined."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Three pitching aces give Tampa Bay Rays the upper hand 03/14/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 15, 2009 7:13am]

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