Youngsters ready to flourish
Kazmir, Crawford anchor young, talented Devil Rays squad
ST. PETERSBURG -- In deference to the past, the Devil Rays' 2007 Spring Training camp will open with more stability than any year in the past, and that stability comes with young players in every position and in the rotation.
The most pressing question will be: Can the kids play?
While the Rays do have a pretty good idea of what their youngsters can do, 2007 will provide a litmus test for where the team truly needs to augment its ranks from outside the organization.
Given the healthy price tag and risky proposition that comes with the acquisition of free-agent pitching, the Rays can't be faulted for sticking with their own players and seeing which of the kids they want to continue to use in their rotation for future seasons.
Left-hander Scott Kazmir is the unquestioned staff ace and is earmarked for greatness if he can stay healthy. After Kazmir, the rest of the rotation is fairly set with right-handers Jae Seo and James Shields, and left-hander Casey Fossum.
"These guys have another year under their belt and should be better," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
But if they don't fare well, the Rays have plenty of young arms to sort through to try and find the right fit for their rotation rather than going outside the organization.
Young arms will compete for the staff's No. 5 spot, with the best contenders being right-handers Brian Stokes, Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann, as well as left-hander J.P. Howell. But not far off the radar are Mitch Talbot -- acquired from the Astros in the Aubrey Huff deal last summer -- and Andy Sonnanstine. All told, the Rays have seven pitchers 25 or younger who are in the mix.
The Rays understand they will have to eventually delve into the free-agent market, but evaluating what they have in-house appears to be the prudent move before taking that step.
From that group of young arms several will likely make the transition from starter to reliever. Initially, every organization wants to look at its most promising youngsters as starters -- because it is such a valuable quantity -- before converting them to relief pitchers. Such conversions from starter to reliever might be needed this season in order to bulk up the bullpen to where it can salvage the efforts of young starters.
While Rays fans might be disappointed the team didn't engage more in the free-agent market during the offseason, they can take heart that the everyday lineup has a lot of familiar -- and young -- faces they can identify with for years to come. The outfield of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Delmon Young is as solid as any in baseball. And knocking on the door to join that group is Elijah Dukes.
If the Rays' evaluations at the end of the 2007 season -- or somewhere in the middle of the season -- determine that the starting pitching could be augmented for the better in future years, one of that starting trio of outfielders could be moved. But the Rays would like to hang on to all three of their talented trio of outfielders, and while no player on the Rays has been deemed untouchable, opposing teams have not come up with the right collateral to lure away one of the prized trio.
"I think we're pretty much in agreement, [the everyday lineup] is a nice group, and it can be a nice core group for years," Maddon said. "We've got to have Kaz come back well, which we think he is going to be fine. ... And then, of course, here comes the fifth starter, and then we get back to the amorphic bullpen and trying to really create some form about that before we get to the regular season."
The negative side of having such a youthful bunch wearing Rays uniforms in 2007 comes in having to play the payroll heavy teams in the American League East. On the bright side, youth has the highest potential for improvement. If the Rays get something out of its starting staff, the team has a solid enough lineup to be competitive in 2007.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.