ST. PETERSBURG - The Rays enter the 2008 season with a vastly improved bullpen, noticeably better defense up the middle and a balanced batting order that blends catalysts and run producers.
Everything is set up for Tampa Bay to enjoy the best season it has ever had. None of it will make a difference if the Rays' starting pitching falters.
Everyone understands that a successful rotation is the cornerstone of a winning team, though the Rays have become familiar with that principle mostly through its inverse. Where for the better part of a decade the Rays' No. 1 starter often could be defined as the lesser of five evils, they no longer have to be embarrassed about the arms they roll out to start each game.
Once it is fully assembled, perhaps by late April, a staff headed by James Shields, Matt Garza and a healthy Scott Kazmir will make the Rays as formidable as they ever have been.
With those three pitchers atop the Rays' rotation, it should be easier to stop losing streaks and keep the team on a winning roll when it's hot. The 2 1/3-inning, seven-run debacles that used to show up regularly in Tampa Bay's box scores should be fewer and farther between, diminishing the need for bullpen abuse. Perhaps most importantly, a team that has had its share of confidence crises should feel good about its chances of matching up with just about anyone on a given night.
"We want to win series," left fielder Carl Crawford said, "and you'll feel real comfortable having three guys like that going into a series."
That sense of security comes in part because of the aura those pitchers project. They are well aware of how important their performance will be in allowing the Rays to take the long-awaited step forward everyone expects this season. In fact, they embrace it.
"We're the ones that signed up for this," said Garza, the newcomer who arrived from the Twins in the Delmon Young trade. "No one forced our hand or said, 'You guys have to do this; this is your career.' We all chose it, and this is where we all thrive. We're all the type of guys that we want the ball at the start of the game and we want to try to finish it at the end of the game."
Shields personified that spirit last season, racking up 215 innings (nine short of Tanyon Sturtze's club record) despite being shut down with two starts remaining because the organization didn't want his workload to increase too much from the previous year. He considers staying in the game as long as he possibly can every fifth day the least he can do as a starting pitcher.
"It's our job to get deep in the game, and if we don't get deep in the game, we're not giving our team a chance to win ballgames," Shields said. "It definitely starts with us, and I think we thrive on that kind of pressure. I think the more pressure you put on us, we're going to step up to the plate."
The unshakable confidence of youth is pervasive in this trio. Shields, who turned 26 in December, is the oldest and Kazmir has the most big-league service time with three-plus years.
In a sense, they've seen enough to know they're good, but they're still figuring out how far that can take them.
"We're all young guys in the same position, so we're really pushing each other when it comes down to it," Kazmir said. "It's just being young and hungry, that's pretty much it. We all go out there with the fire in us to just get after it. That's what happens at a young age - we don't hold anything back."
Baseball has seen groups like this before, though they don't come along very often. Comparisons earlier this spring to Atlanta's legendary trio of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery prompted let's-not-get-carried-away ridicule from Rays elder statesman Troy Percival. But there are similarities to that model.
Like that trio that led the Braves from oblivion to a stranglehold on the NL East in the early 1990s, other such groups in recent years were borne of bottom-feeding. High draft picks and trades that dumped expensive veterans for cheap prospects helped not only the Braves but also the Florida Marlins (Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Dontrelle Willis) and Oakland A's (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito) in assembling talented young starting staffs.
The rub is that only the Braves were able to keep their group together for the long haul - and even then, Avery ultimately ceded his top-three spot to Greg Maddux. The Marlins and A's saw the pitchers they had cultivated disperse for massive contracts in more moneyed precincts, leaving them grappling for a way to keep the pipeline open.
The Rays can take solace in the knowledge that their version will have three seasons to grow together before market forces intrude. Kazmir will be eligible for free agency for the first time following the 2010 season, and Shields and Garza will remain under the Rays' control beyond then.
That's more than enough time to determine if these three are as valuable for the long-term as they appear to be. And, all of them seem excited about the chance to develop alongside their peers.
Kazmir: "The more we play together, the more we can learn from each other and the more we can help each other."
Garza: "It's going to be one guy pushing another or picking up another, that's the way the whole staff's going to be."
Shields: "Being as young as we are, we're going to grow together, we're going to learn from each others' mistakes, because we are going to make mistakes. I think that's the beauty of the whole situation. You can look at another guy on the staff and learn from his mistakes because we are going to make mistakes - we're young."
They are, but that self-awareness blended into the talent and confidence each has in abundance suggests they might be capable of performing beyond the usual expectations for players of their age and experience.
"Obviously, it's all theory right now, but you look at it down the road and I'm quite certain it's going to come together," Manager Joe Maddon said. "When that date arrives, I'm not quite sure yet. But when this theory turns into reality, it's going to be very interesting to watch. That's a tremendous group to build your foundation upon."