ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — They will be without their workhorse, their rotation’s heaviest hauler, so David Price knows this summer will be different around these parts. Faces in a clubhouse come and go, most as permanent as a Sunbelt cold front. But over time, some shadows become harder to shake.
Consider former Tampa Bay Rays right-hander James Shields, traded to the Kansas City Royals in a six-player December deal, to be a card-carrying member of that camp. He led the Rays with 227.2 innings pitched last season, his sixth consecutive campaign with at least 200. He threw a career-high 249.1 in the 2011 season. Aside from pitching 124.2 as a rookie and 203.1 in 2010, he has thrown at least 215 in each of his seven major-league campaigns.
So there’s a hole that needs to be filled at the Trop, a John Kruk–sized gap to be plugged if the Rays are to threaten for their fourth postseason berth in the last six seasons. The good news: Joe Maddon’s guys don’t need to search far to find the arm willing and capable to clock overtime on the rubber, the diamond’s hottest spotlight of all.
Mr. American League Cy Young Award winner, what do you have planned for an encore?
“If everybody can throw seven, 10, 12 more innings than they threw last year, everything kind of evens out,” Price said Monday after a morning workout at Tropicana Field. “That includes myself. If I can get up to 220 innings, we can have somebody else get up to close to 200 and the 190s. If we can do that, and everybody else picks up 10, 12, 15 innings, it will work its way out.”
That’s easier said than done, of course, but the lanky left-hander’s sentiment is spot-on. Price finished with 211 innings pitched last season, the second-most of his five-year major-league career, while earning a 20-5 record with a career-low 2.56 ERA. No other Rays pitcher had more than Matt Moore’s 177 1/3.
Over the past three years, he has pitched no fewer than the 208.2 he threw in 2010.
By now, Price’s heels should be well versed with the red carpet. His offseason included cameras of all shapes and sizes: An “MLB 2K13” commercial shoot, an ESPN studio visit and an appearance at a banquet for the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, where he received his AL Cy Young Award.
But Price’s victory lap is in its home stretch, so it’s fair to turn focus to the next to-do list. The elite never settle, never grow complacent as their shelves fill with hardware and their ears with praise, and Price will be studied by how he responds to success. Among boxes awaiting checkmarks:
* Continue to show growth. A 12-13 season with a 3.49 ERA in 2011 was an anomaly, but aside from that hiccup, his win and ERA totals have steadily increased. He had zero victories in five appearances in 2008, 10 in ’09, 19 in ’10 and the 20 last season.
* Continue to lead the young. He’s only 27, but last season’s breakout effort could place him on a higher pedestal among his peers. He says he’s an “open book,” and teammates can text or call him whenever they like to learn how he manages his craft. Without Shields, who’s 31, Price will be a sage voice on staff.
* Continue to be who he is. Price has been labeled as a “rare talent” (by outfielder Matt Joyce) and as “open-minded” (by catcher Jose Molina), so few expect him to change a mental approach that made 2012 such a memorable summer. Consistency will be his key. Why tweak an engine primed to fly?
“I don’t think his mentality changes,” Joyce said. “I don’t think his talent changes. So, honestly, I don’t think anything is going to be that much different. … Maybe people expect the pitchers to pick up more innings. Obviously, Shields ate up a lot of innings. I think that’s going to be huge for us going down the stretch. But David is going to be David. He’s a competitor. He wants to go out there every day. He wants to throw a full game, complete game, every day. You kind of have to hold him back a little bit.”
But they never have to push him forward. Watching Price at Monday’s workout was an example of the comfort he has found within the franchise that made him the top pick in the 2007 draft. He was a revealing mix of confident and committed, driven and goofy.
The visible proof: He came dressed more prepared for the couch than the questions. He stretched and jogged in drills while wearing a striped tank top, white shorts and blue basketball shoes, because, he said, “I didn’t know that there was going to be media here.”
The verbal proof: At one point early in an interview, he was asked about transitioning into a veteran leader. He seemed surprised by how quickly the evolution had occurred. “It’s all happens so fast, you don’t really think about it,” he said, both hands stuffed into his shorts. “It is cool. I do have a little bit of time in the league now. I have, I guess, quite a bit in comparison to our team.”
“I think he’ll just have to do the same of what he did last year,” Molina told FOXSportsFlorida.com. “You don’t put pressure on guys. You just let them do what they do. … His personality is amazing. His mind is always thinking about winning games, no matter what. He could have bad games, like everybody does. But he sticks it out and is positive again. That’s huge in his game.”
Yes, the Rays will be without their workhorse on the hill, who was given a new shade of blue in a blockbuster trade that could change the course of both franchises involved. Yes, Shields is a loss. Yes, adjustment will be necessary.
But they still have a stallion primed in their stable. Ten, 12, 15 more innings of Price? More chances to prove he has a higher ceiling?
Mr. American League Cy Young Award winner, your next test awaits.