Rays' starting pitching depth scary good

Tampa Bay Rays begin spring training with an embarrassement of riches in starting pitching.

Normally, I feel sorry for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Not this time.

Oh, the Rays still face their usual low-revenue problems while trying to compete with the big-budget New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL East.

But as the Rays try to pick their best five starting pitchers from a talented group of six, they should not expect a pity party — particularly when the number of qualified candidates is more like eight.

And when the Rays’ rotation, no matter which pitchers are chosen, will be — excuse the term — an embarrassment of riches.

In a perfect world, the Rays would trade right-hander Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann for a starting catcher, someone like the Cincinnati Reds’ Ryan Hanigan.

But the Rays spent the entire offseason trying to pull off such a move, and now they’re thinking that maybe their surplus isn’t so bad.

“Things always have a tendency of working themselves out, whether it’s via an injury or some type of setback, an acquisition, a departure,” Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey says. “I’m kind of hoping . . . actually, I don’t know what I’m hoping. I’m hoping they all do tremendous and we’ve got agonizingly tough decisions at the end of spring training.”

No one should be surprised if that happens.

As Hickey says, injuries are possible, a reality of almost every team’s spring. But right-hander James Shields, the oldest member of the Rays’ rotation, is just 30. Niemann is 28. Every other candidate is 26 and under, including the No. 7 starter, right-hander Alex Cobb, and No. 8, lefty Alex Torres.

Here’s the best part: Torres, acquired from the Angels three years ago in the Scott Kazmir trade, is the only one of the eight who is not homegrown.

People always say, “The Rays should be good; they drafted in high positions for so long.” True, Niemann was the fourth overall pick in 2004, lefty David Price the first overall selection in ’07. But each of the others was a third-round pick or lower, available to all.

The Rays don’t just draft well; they develop well, too. Righty Jeremy Hellickson (13-10, 2.95) is the reigning American League Rookie of the Year. Shields (16-12, 2.82) was third in last year’s AL Cy Young voting. Price was second the year before. And lefty Matt Moore might prove the best of them all.

“There are not too many teams that have two lefties throwing 97-plus,” Shields says, referring to Price and Moore.

There also are not too many teams with two righties who stifle left-handed hitters with changeups the way Shields and Hellickson do. Lefties hit .219 against Shields last season, .230 against Hellickson.

Four of the Red Sox’s most dangerous hitters — Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Carl Crawford — are left-handed. So are two of the Yankees’ best, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano.

That’s the stuff that matters. Six starters for five spots? Who cares?

The competition, Hickey says, is “not going to be contract-driven or ego-driven or nice-guy driven or even necessarily performance-in-spring-training driven. It will be, in our estimation, what gives the Tampa Bay Rays a chance to win as many games as they can.”

The truth is, few teams negotiate 162 games with just five starters; the Rays have used a minimum of seven every year since 2008. Chances are they will need every one of their quality arms, particularly when a postseason berth might come down to the smallest of margins.

Some creativity might be warranted: The Rays used a six-man rotation last season for about a two-week period starting in late July. The frequent days off in April would make it impractical to open the season in such fashion, but club officials acknowledge that they could try six again later, buying the pitchers additional rest.

“It’s something we can consider,” manager Joe Maddon says. “We have experience with it now.”

Moore, who is just 22 and has minor-league options remaining, would be the easiest pitcher to demote, but the Rays would consider that only if he utterly flopped this spring, which is about as likely as Felix Hernandez turning into Felix Heredia.

Maddon also dismissed the idea of Moore going to the bullpen; the Rays do not want to retard Moore’s development, and he will pitch without an innings restriction this season after progressing steadily through the minors.

No, the odd man out likely will be Niemann (11-7, 4.06) or Davis (11-10, 4.45), and Davis addressed the issue this week by telling the Tampa Bay Times, “I’m a starter. I don’t see any reason for me to be in the bullpen . . . I definitely want to be a starter and stay a starter forever.”

Well, what else would you expect him to say?

Davis pitched out of the bullpen in last year’s division series, and both Maddon and Hickey are confident that the “loser” of the competition, if there is one, would make the same sacrifice for the team.

One of Maddon’s greatest strengths is the way he connects with players. If a tough decision is necessary, his communication skills will come in handy.

“People away from here may read some things. You have to come here to find out the context with which it is said,” Maddon says.

“We talk every day. There’s no animosity in any of these comments. I really believe that however we decide to do this — if somebody has to run to the bullpen — I believe it will be met with acceptance based on this pitcher knowing it’s what we perceive to be the best for us now.

“And, whoever this pitcher may be, we’re not looking at this guy being a relief pitcher down the road. This is a guy that we can easily fold back in.”

The bottom line is that no one will want to disrupt the chemistry. Price (12-13, 3.49), who joined the club in 2008, the year the Rays went to the World Series, says this could be the best Tampa Bay team yet.

The Rays brought back free-agent first baseman Carlos Pena (28 HR, 80 RBI) and also added designated hitter Luke Scott, infielder Jeff Keppinger and reliever Fernando Rodney. Most of the team’s top players are veterans of multiple postseasons.

So now the Rays have too many starting pitchers?

Hold your tears.

As Price puts it, “I know every team in the big leagues wishes that they had our problem.”

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