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Around the Horn: Starting rotation

Around the Horn: Starting rotation

The following is the fifth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Starting rotation.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Few rotations in baseball can boast of a 1-2 punch like the Rays have with Scott Kazmir and James Shields at the top of their rotation. What will go a long way toward determining what the Rays do in 2008 will be how the back end of the rotation fills out.

Kazmir and Shields were the dynamic duo in 2007, each keeping the Rays in the game during most of their starts, each pitching more than 200 innings, and each showing the kind of stuff on the mound every fan wants to see out of their favorite team's starting pitchers.

Kazmir, 24, struggled to find his mechanics in the first half of '07. Before the All-Star break, he posted a 5-6 record with a 4.41 ERA. During that period consisting of 19 starts, Kazmir struggled to find the strike zone, fighting his mechanics and trying to find something on which he could rely, something that felt right. At one point, he changed from his normal spot on the third-base side of the rubber to the first-base side.

Kazmir eventually figured things out and became the pitcher he wanted to be.

After the All-Star break, Kazmir went 8-3 with a 2.39 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 84 1/3 innings. He finished the season 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA and led the American League in strikeouts with 248. By fighting to find his mechanics last year, Kazmir feels as though he'll be able to pick up in 2008 where he left off, which is bad news to AL hitters.

Shields, 26, the team's most consistent pitcher last season, went undefeated in his first 13 starts, making him only the 17th pitcher in the past 25 years to accomplish that feat. During that period, Shields exited all 13 games with either the lead or the game tied, but went just 6-0 with a 3.05 ERA, thanks in large part to the bullpen's struggles to protect the lead.

He went 2-7 in his next 10 starts before finishing the season strong, going 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA in his final eight starts.

Shields is a blue-collar pitcher who never wants to leave a game. He became the third hurler in team history to eclipse the 200-inning mark, finishing 10th in the AL in innings pitched with a team-high 215, despite missing his last two starts when the Rays chose to take a cautious approach.

The highlight of Shields' season came on May 30, when he threw the first nine-inning complete game of his career against the Tigers in a 5-3 win at Tropicana Field. The effort typified Shields' toughness as he survived a three-run, five-hit first inning to retire 24 of the final 27 batters he faced.

Tampa Bay Rays
Catchers: Navarro on way up
Corner IF: Power potential for Rays
Middle IF: New spot for Iwamura
Outfielders: RF up for grabs
Starters: Rays pack one-two punch
Bullpen: Percival stabilizes ninth
DH/Bench: A crowded picture

Bolstering the Rays' rotation was the trade with the Twins that brought Matt Garza into the fold. Garza, 24, struggled during his initial taste of the Major Leagues in 2006 and did not break camp with the Twins in '07. But a strong showing on the farm significantly bumped his stock, and in July he became a rotation fixture in Minnesota, finishing the year with a 3.69 ERA in 16 games. The young right-hander sports four pitches, including an improved changeup that is believed to be the key to his progress.

"He's got a chance, certainly, to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher," said Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "He's a guy that we project to get a lot better pretty quickly."

Garza should fit in nicely behind Kazmir and Shields in the rotation.

"The Rays are taking steps in the right direction to get better," Garza said. "I'm not saying I'll be a big part, but I'm saying I'm another piece of that puzzle they are looking to put together."

The Rays now have a surplus of young pitching. The addition of Garza not only adds one more power arm to the rotation, but it creates an even stiffer competition at the back end. Edwin Jackson, Andy Sonnanstine, Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell will battle a slew of even younger pitchers, which includes, among others, Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot, for the final two slots. Also making great progress are Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Chris Mason. And don't forget last year's top Draft pick, David Price, who should come around quickly.

"If you can have seven or eight starters, the five you have and the three in Triple-A, that's kind of a blessing right there," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We are stockpiling the pitchers.

"Those guys had some really good competition at the end of last year. Jackson, Sonnanstine, Howell, then you've got Talbot, Niemann knocking on the door, the other fellas coming up behind that. There's a lot of competition going for those couple spots. That's a good thing for us, obviously, because you [can] turn back the clock two years and [see] what we were going through at that time."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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