Change in the Rays Pitching Hierarchy
There will be an interesting air of change coming to Tropicana Field for the Tampa Bay Rays on April 1, 2011. It has nothing to do at all with the iconic day of pranks and laughter, but will definitely designate a change in the Rays pitching always evolving hierarchy. For the last three MLB Opening Days, this spot had been reserved for Rays starter James Shields. But in 2011, the Rays will go another direction.
Some within the Rays are saying that Rays starter David Price finally took that last step in his evolution this Spring and won the Opening Day nod on merit, not a changing of the guard at the top of the Rays rotation. Price has shown every ounce and sediment of maturity you want out of your top dog ( sorry Astro), and the elevation to the “ace” spot is one from tireless work, dedication and confidence.
This Spring, while Shields is still fighting to lose the dust of despair that hung over his 2010 season, Price has surged, especially in his situational pitching to vault his name up into that top echelon with names like the Yankees C C Sabbathia, or Red Sox hurler Josh Beckett. This is not to anoint Price the “next big thing”, but to be so young, yet so successful at a young age can have its perks.
Could the final decision to give Price the ball and the mound on Opening Day against the Baltimore Orioles on Friday, April 1st be a firm indicator that the Rays powers-to-be have rewarded Price in making that last final step in his evolution this Spring to take on the “ace” role with confidence and the strength needed to propel this reloaded Rays team towards the top again.
Along the way Price had to step over the fresh carcass of Rays starter James Shields, who had been the Rays Opening Day guy for the last three seasons. Some might think this was also a purposeful wake-up call for Shields, who is entering the last year of his contract before he his a series of 1-year options from 2012-2015, to again find that essence that made him the Rays top option in the past.
Still, it is a firm spoken indicator that Price is finally going to have the training wheels firmly taken off and fly against some of the best pitchers in baseball. Some might think taking the number one spot is an award of its own, but it comes with a huge amount of peril. No longer do you have the secondary option of not facing your rivals top tier guy, but the pressure and focal spotlight will be driven towards you, as a leader. So, is Price the new poster boy for Rays pitching, with Shields standing by his side as a colleague?
Going to be interesting to see the seasonal path of these two. One considered the Rays “greybeard”, or longest tenured Rays starter who might face more than control and velocity problems this season. I expect to hear Shields name more and more as the season approaches in response to a inquiry by the Colorado Rockies for another pitching weapon. His last few starts might either cement him towards staying with the Rays until possibly the end of July, or finding an early exit visa to another locale.
One pitcher is experiencing the highlights that every kid who throws the rock wants in his lifetime. The other is fighting a change of his entire complex pitching persona, and hoping to again bottle lightning in the bottle. But this could be a blessing in disguise for Shields. Less pressure, but not less need to win. The Rays did the same for former Rays starter Matt Garza in 2010, dropping him from the number 2 slot down in the rotation.
The response gave Garza the chance to rebound mentally, physically and emotionally to propel his pitching to another level. Could the same subconscious act happen for Shields? I hope so. He is the kind of pitcher that can mesh a pitching staff together. Bond everyone with a common thread, and I expect him to be at Price’s side instead of plotting to get his top spot back.
This is what the Rays want from their mature leader who has logged over 200 inning for the fourth straight season. If Shields can be the guy who can push Price in the back to be better, or even stand there and help him when he falls, his importance on this team will triple and those whispers of an early departure will vanish into thin air.
Watching the present walk in front of the past is sometimes difficult because you know there will be growing pains. But this Rays staff has been confident for years with their overall make-up, and in 2011 this transfer at the top of the rotation might actually work to everyone’s advantage. I wan to commend Shields maturity and gracious demeanor as his streak as a Opening Day starter ends.
Hearing this action by the Rays staff announced so early in the Spring Training process is an indication of the team going towards Price as their leader in the future. Hopefully Shields can adapt, conquer and find his former pitching way this season and propel himself forward.
Change can always come with conflict, expectations and a weird desire for the past. Hopefully the conflict will be that the rest of the American League will hate this recent Rays move as the Rays try and conquer their rivals in the upcoming 162 game season.
If Shields does find his breaking ball again, his confidence rise will be rewarded with quality starts, strikeouts and eventual Rays wins. Those changes should scare the rest of the American League. For once, change might be better for both parties, and a hindrance for the rest of Major League Baseball.