Rays bubbly over fountain of youth

Starting trio of Kazmir, Shields, Garza pumps up team's confidence.

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - For much of their first 10 seasons, the Rays assembled their rotation as if they were baseball's Statue of Liberty, bringing in the tired, the poor and sore and those yearning to breathe free, and eat free, in their clubhouse.

But with the acquisition of Matt Garza and the continued development of ace Scott Kazmir and James Shields, the Rays suddenly find themselves with something of a prized monument:

A trio of young and talented starters who could front not only the best rotation they've ever had, but is the envy of teams throughout the leagues.

"I'm sure every team would like to have them, but to have them be their top 1, 2, 3 starters? Probably about 26 teams," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "You're talking about three pretty high-end guys, not just three nice little starters. Three guys you can pretty much put in the classification of being a No.1 starter - eventually."

As Rays officials went back over the last several decades, they came up with only a few teams that had three starters who were so young with the chance to be so good. There were the A's of the early 2000s with Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. The Marlins of the same era with Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Dontrelle Willis. The Braves of the early 1990s with Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. And not too many others.

"It's certainly a rare commodity," senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker said, "to have three young pitchers with the talent level that we're going to run out there."

Kazmir, who just turned 24, was 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA last season and led the American League with 239 strikeouts. Perhaps more impressive, he's seven games above .500 (at 33-26) on Rays teams that in the past three seasons were nearly 100 games under .500 (at 194-292).

Shields, the old man of the staff at 26, was 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA last year in his first full season with a historically notable strikeouts-to-walks ratio (184-36). Garza, 24, was 5-7 with a 3.69 ERA in a half-season with Minnesota, with legit projections of doing more.

"One of the great things about those three guys is that the arrow is pointing up," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "All three of them have some things that they can do to get even better."

The Rays - while cognizant of the potential for injury and other derailments - are excited to watch them grow. In addition to being young and good, they are (relatively) inexpensive, and could stay together for at least three seasons, with Kazmir eligible for free agency in 2011.

The advantage is not only in what each can do in a specific game, but the cumulative effect of pitching back-to-back-to-back.

"Top-of-the-rotation pitchers by definition means that when they take the mound you feel like you have a legitimate chance to win that day," Hunsicker said. "You're confident you're going to win that game. And I think we're going to run three guys out there that the team's going to feel like that every day. And that gives us a chance to win every series we go into."

The pitchers can't wait to see how it works.

"It's a nice trio, isn't it?" Kazmir said. "We match up well with everyone. You get three solid guys like that, that's where you get the streaks. And we're young guys, so everyone's going to feed off each other. You could see us very soon just going on a roll, just tearing it up."

They're excitable boys, too, and expect the competition between them to accelerate the progress.

"That's a great way to pitch, where you always want to one-up the next guy," Garza said. "The inner competition is going to create a nice little run for us if you get going, the drive to be better than the next guy. ... We've got a good thing going on here."

Certainly better than they've had, with rotations that featured Ryan Rupe, Bryan Rekar, Mark Hendrickson and Tanyon Sturtze, and better than a lot of other teams have now.

"Most teams, you have a good one-two punch," said nonroster catcher Mike Difelice, a 12-year veteran. "Now this team has the potential to have a one-two, and a left cross as a third punch. They're young. They're healthy. And they could cause some sleepless nights for some people."

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