You've heard it plenty of times already this spring. The 2010 season is the most important season that the Tampa Bay Rays have faced in the entirety of their short history.
While that may sound like daunting news, it is slightly relieving to observe the fact that this will likely be the most talented team to ever take the green carpet at Tropicana Field.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the pitching staff that the Rays have assembled for 2010. This year, the Rays can stake claim to one of the deepest young rotations in Major League Baseball, and a bullpen that has sorted out the organizational problems that haunted it last season.
Let's take a closer look.
2009 Line: 11-12, 4.14 ERA, 167 K, 52 Walks
Pitches: Changeup, fastball, curveball
For the third straight season, James Shields will be the opening day starter for the Rays. His situation is a slightly unique one.
Is Shields the most talented pitcher in the Rays starting rotation? Absolutely not. In fact, of the Rays' five starting pitchers, Shields probably has the least fascinating stuff. However, he makes up for this by being extremely reliable and consistent.
Shields plows through innings like John Kruk plows through a hot dog stand. He is the catalyst of a very young Rays rotation, and the success of the pitching staff as a whole depends on his ability to pitch a lot of shutdown innings.
Yes, the Rays have a gifted rotation full of future stars, but that doesn't change the fact that they are still very young. Once you get past Shields and Matt Garza, you have three guys who combine for roughly two years of major league experience.
There will be exciting days when these young guns shine and suffocate the opposition, but there will also be days when their inexperience leads to bullpen games. Shields will be relied upon to give the relievers a break and put things back in focus when those kind of weeks come about.
Expect this to be his role with the Rays for years to come as he still has five years left on his seven year contract.
2009 Line: 8-12, 3.95 ERA, 189 K, 79 Walks
Pitches: Fastball, hard slider, curveball, changeup
In Matt Garza, the Rays have a No. 2 pitcher that can be as good as almost anyone in baseball. When he is on, Garza has the kind of talent that puts him in the small, elite group of dominant major league pitchers.
If you've watched Garza play, you know that the key words in that last statement are "when he is on."
The problem with Garza is consistency. In 2009, there were days like the Boston game where he took a perfect game into the seventh inning as part of a 13-0 win. There were also plenty of days where he killed games with control issues.
The cause of the bad days is typically frustration. During a bad inning, Garza has been known to kick dirt, spit rapidly, and expose the inside of his glove to more profanities than an Ari Gold tirade. His emotions are always visible.
All of this can occasionally make you forget just how good Garza can be. Pitching coach Jim Hickey was quick to tell Sports Illustrated that Garza has the best stuff on the Rays' pitching staff. Some are mentioning him as a potential Cy Young dark horse this season.
There is no question that Garza's right arm is ready for this kind of success. This season's storyline will be whether or not we can say the same about his head.
2009 Line: 10-7, 4.42 ERA, 102 K, 54 Walks
Pitches: Fastball, slider, changeup
Few players debut in the majors with the same kind of buzz that followed David Price. It sounds strange to say that this season has the possibility of being a breakout year for Price.
After all, we are discussing a guy that notched his first postseason win before his first regular season win and got the vital last four outs in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS.
However, Price has too much talent to forever be remembered as "that ALCS guy." The baseball talking heads have predetermined that he is a future star, a future staff ace. There is no reason why their prediction should be anything but the truth.
If Price is bound for stardom, then this season would be a logical time for it all to begin. He can finally stand comfortable in his role as a No. 3 starter after a 2009 season that was very transitional.
A Shields-Garza-Price 1-2-3 punch looks very exciting on paper and should look just as nice in a weekend series.
2009 Line: 13-6. 3.94 ERA, 125 K, 59 Walks
Pitches:Fastball, curveball, changeup, slider
The fact that Jeff Niemann had one of the best seasons on the Rays' pitching staff in 2009 is one of the great secrets of last season. Niemann was a surprise anchor in a rotation that struggled heavily at times.
With this in mind, Niemann is tagging along with Price in the "breakout season candidate" department in 2010. At 6'9", he creates an imposing image on the mound that he is beginning to take advantage of.
I personally saw Niemann pitch this spring and can say that he looks stronger than ever. For a number of years, he was forced to play the minor league waiting game as the opportunities of others jumped ahead of him.
However, now at 27, Niemann has his opportunity, and it will be to set a tone going into the following day when newcomer Wade Davis takes the mound. Here's to hoping that he handles this role well.
2009 Line: 2-2, 3,72 ERA, 36 K, 13 Walks
Pitches: Fastball, changeup, slider, curveball, cutter
The Rays briefly got to see what Wade Davis can do when they made him a late season call-up in 2009. In 2010, they'll get a much closer look as he enters his first full major league season.
I think that most will view Davis as a bonus this year. Few teams will tout the raw potential and talent in a fifth starter that the Rays will when they send him out to the mound. In many systems, this would probably be Davis' second or third full season in the rotation, but this is the Rays, and young talent runs deep.
A successful Davis would take this Rays staff from simply being deep to becoming mind-blowing. He should be an upgrade over Andy Sonnanstine, a more traditional fifth starter.
With Davis on the mound, it is safe to say that the Rays have a rotation that could be dominant every day of the week.
2009 Line: 4-5, 3.28 ERA, 45 K, 9 Walks
Pitches: Fastball, slider, changeup
If the Rays really are going to feature a more organized bullpen this season with Rafael Soriano as permanent closer, it is likely that Dan Wheeler will see a good portion of eighth inning set-up work. With a whirlwind swirling around him in the bullpen, Wheeler has been able to remain somewhat consistent.
With J.P. Howell out until May and nobody sure which Grant Balfour the Rays will see this year, 2010 could rely heavily upon Wheeler. He appears to be the James Shields of the bullpen. Wheeler features nothing spectacular, but still finds a way to remain effective.
After 2008, it seemed destined that Balfour was the ideal set-up man for the Rays. His struggles in 2009 had some screaming "fluke" and made 2010 even more important for him. He won't get his chance to prove critics wrong as a permanent set-up man.
So it will be Wheeler turning the ball over to new closer Rafael Soriano to finish out games. The goal will be to turn it over to Soriano in the same shape that he found it.
That was an issue for the Rays bullpen as a whole in 2009.
2009 Line: 1-6, 2.97 ERA, 102 K, 27 Walks, 27 Saves
Pitches: Fastball, slider, changeup
A true closer is something that the Rays have lacked since their fresh beginning of relevance. In Rafael Soriano, they appear to have found something.
In 2008, the Rays often won in spite of Troy Percival. In 2009, they had no designated closer. Late game bullpen situations often resembled a Friday afternoon office. Everbody knew that someone was going to have to make the ninth inning appearance. Nobody really cared for the honors.
Soriano has the perfect repertoire to be the answer to the Rays' closer problems. His moving fastball can hit the vicious territory of triple digits.
With Soriano in place, the Rays bullpen is finally able to sort itself out. If everything goes well, each member of the bullpen will work their way into comfortable roles by June.
But it will all begin with Soriano's performance. He may be the most necessary free agent acquisition that the Rays have ever made.