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Sticking to A Schedule
JOE MADDON had one desire when he and his bride, Jaye, went to Europe for their honeymoon last November: to find someone, anyone, wearing Rays gear. The Tampa Bay manager got his wish in the Rome train station when he ran into a guy in a TB hat. "We had a great conversation," Maddon says. "He was probably in his mid-20s. That's the thing I'm liking: We're getting a younger crowd on board."
True. Tropicana Field is no longer just a place for retirees to stretch out and peacefully pass the time in air-conditioned comfort. For the first time in the Rays' 11-year existence, the Trop rocked on a consistent basis last season, as Tampa spent 100 days—including the last 68 of the season—in first place. The Rays' first postseason berth was a testament to the virtue of patience: Five of their eight position players and four of their five starting pitchers were regulars on the 2007 team that lost 96 games. The biggest boost in '08 came from third baseman Evan Longoria, who started the year in Triple A but was called up in mid-April and became the anchor for the middle of the order. This year Maddon is hoping for a similar contribution from another kid who will start the season on the farm: David Price.
Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, has freakish physical gifts that are well-documented. Asked hypothetically to build the perfect starter, Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey concedes that his Frankenpitcher would bear a striking resemblance to the 23-year-old Price: "I'd start with the same height [6'6"], same weight , same handedness [lefty]. You want to pick a realistic velocity? You couldn't get much better than his upper 90s. And he's got a tremendous breaking ball."
Price rolled through three levels of the minors last year, going 12--1 with a 2.30 ERA, and in 14 big league innings he had a 1.93 ERA. So why didn't he break camp as the Rays' fifth starter? Price threw 123 2/3 innings in 2008, and Maddon and Hickey are loath to work him much harder than that in '09. "The plan is for David to be one of our starters, probably for the majority of the season," says Maddon. And when Maddon says he's going to resist the urge to treat Price like a new toy on Christmas morning, believe him. "I don't have those temptations," the manager says. "I always have my mind's eye on the big picture. I'm not of that ilk where I'm totally frothing."
There's also the matter of Price's repertoire. He did his damage last year with his fastball and slider. Over a full season, he's going to need another pitch, which is why he's developing a changeup. "David was extremely successful last year in situations that favored his success," says Hickey. "Hitters were unfamiliar with him. It's going to be a different ball game when he's facing teams three, four or five times. Definitely the changeup is going to come into effect."
Price wasn't too shabby as a two-pitch pitcher during the Rays' improbable postseason run, though, as he allowed just two hits and struck out eight in 5 2/3 innings. Tampa was ultimately taken down in the World Series in five games by Philadelphia, with three of the four losses coming in games started by lefties. Solving southpaws was a problem all year; Tampa hit 21 points better against righties, and the Rays' .246 average against lefthanded pitching was next to last in the AL. So in the off-season they off-loaded Rocco Baldelli, Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske and Jonny Gomes, replacing them with free agents Pat Burrell and Gabe Kapler. Their homers and RBIs are a virtual wash (43 and 133 going out, 41 and 124 coming in), but the new faces hit a combined .305 against southpaws, compared with the .194 clip of the departed. The addition of Burrell, a plodding leftfielder in Philadelphia who will settle into the lineup at DH, is especially key: Last year Tampa's designated hitters slugged a meager .428 and drove in just 78 runs (10th in the AL).
Maddon hopes that being a more balanced team will pay off down the stretch, when he expects to have a gently used Price at his disposal. "If you're going to have David's innings," he says, "would you rather have them in April or October?"
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...
One thing, among many, that made the Rays' run to the World Series last October so unusual was the way manager Joe Maddon used his relief corps. With closer Troy Percival unavailable due to injury, Maddon disregarded the rigid roles of recent decades and deployed his bullpen as situations and skill sets warranted. For one month Grant Balfour (left), J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler weren't long men or setup men or closers—just relievers, 1970s style, often deployed for more than one inning. Five different pitchers closed out Tampa Bay's postseason wins, and the entire cast returns this season, bolstered by a healthy Percival, free-agent pickup Joe Nelson and perhaps rookie righthander Jeff Niemann. Maddon should embrace the depth at his disposal and reprise the strategy that won an AL pennant.