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Patience easier with perspective

When the pitching is on, it is easy to be patient.

By GARY SHELTON
Published May 7, 2007


When the pitching is on, it is easy to be patient.

At times such as these, when the starters seem intent upon giving the Rays a chance, waiting makes perfect sense. When the game is winnable, the Rays look like a team growing into something fun, so what is the hurry?

Edwin Jackson had a pretty good start Sunday. Considering that Casey Fossum was good in his last start, and Jae Seo in his, the Rays have now had five winnable starts in a row. Who figured?

I know, I know. Even now, you are still wary of the Rays' pitching, the bullpen and every starter not named Kazmir or Shields. Whenever you wonder how good these Rays might be, this is the "on the other hand" part of the argument.

And, yes, there have been games when the scoreboard has threatened to burst into flames, when you find yourself wondering if the infielders are wearing Kevlar. When you have seen enough, the urge is to call out for help from below.

In other words, where are the kids?

And more important, when are the kids?

You know how it works. Jackson gives up a double, and you wonder what Jason Hammel is up to these days. Fossum gives up a triple, and you are ready to call out Andy Sonnanstine's name. Seo gives up a home run, and you are ready to start Jeff Niemann on Tuesday.

The more bull you see, the more Durham Bulls you want to see. When final scores make you think you are watching slow pitch (or blackjack, for that matter), you cannot help but call for change.

Down deep, of course, you know better. Too many times, you have seen the old Rays reach too fast and too deep into the minor leagues to pluck out a pitcher who is too young. When it comes to borrowing against the future, bad franchises cannot help themselves. They are like starving men who constantly pick unripe fruit, over and over again until there is nothing left to eat.

That said, have you seen Hammel's numbers? Sonnanstine's? Niemann's?

And considering the Rays have given up eight or more runs in 11 of their 31 games so far, could they have been any worse?

For the Rays, the temptation for a quick callup has never been greater. They are off to a good start, and on the days it does not rain baseballs, they are a lot of fun to watch. Not only that, but they have never had more tantalizing pitching prospects at Triple A.

There is Hammel, the big kid with the 2.48 ERA at Durham. There is Sonnanstine, the crafty right-hander with the 42-7 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. There is Niemann, the 6-9 flamethrower.

So how will the Rays know when these guys are ready? Does it take an article in USA Today where Hammel groans and Sonnanstine grumbles and Niemann talks about everyone in the big leagues showering with Perrier? (Hey, it worked for the other guys, didn't it?)

The easy thing here, the popular thing, would be to call up two of the kids now and another one as soon as you finish this column. If Andrew Friedman, Rays vice president in charge of watching pots to see when they boil, would do that, everyone would cheer and talk about what a competitive guy he was. And it would be years before the bill came due.

But would it be for the best? Maybe not.

"We're committed to the development process, " Friedman said. "All of these guys are working on specific things, and when you're doing that, it's significantly easier to do it at the AAA level. Otherwise, you inevitably get into the survival mode. Your confidence wanes, and it can be a flip of the coin whether a player can be salvaged."

By now, the Rays should know better. No team has served more wine before its time. What if the team had not called up Joe Kennedy or Ryan Rupe so fast? What if it had not given up on Chad Gaudin or Dan Wheeler so quickly? Who knows? With some time in the minors, even Dewon Brazelton might have learned how to pitch.

Not everyone who is thrown into the lake becomes a championship swimmer. Call up a pitcher too quickly, and everything changes. His pitches are undeveloped, and his psyche is damaged. After a couple of years of struggles, his team looks at him in a different light.

Maybe that's the best argument here. Why shouldn't you bring up the kids at Triple A? Because former general manager Chuck LaMar would have. Enough said.

Still, the question lingers. If not now, when?

Obviously, much of the answer depends on whether the kids can sustain their successes. But if Hammel's slider continues to break, look for him by the end of May. If Sonnanstine learns to pitch inside, he'll arrive sometime in June. Niemann needs more experience, and Mitch Talbot needs to challenge hitters more. Both of them could be here by July or August. Maybe they start out in the bullpen and grow into the role of starter.

When the pitching is on, it sounds wise. It sounds patient. It sounds like a plan.

The more good starts you see, the easier it is not to want to start over.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.