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2/19/2013 4:04 P.M. ET

Pitching-rich Rays should contend again in '13

Shields is gone, but Tampa Bay has strong rotation led by ace Price

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- In the same way that you can say "General Motors makes cars," you can say "The Tampa Bay Rays produce pitchers."

There are additional reasons for the Rays' success, but this is the fundamental element. Tampa Bay led the Major Leagues in team ERA last season. This spring, five of the seven candidates for the Rays' starting rotation are from their organization. That would include, of course, the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner, David Price.

This is how every franchise that is not blessed with Yankees/Dodgers revenue hopes to function. But the Rays have moved beyond hope and made the creation of high-quality homegrown pitching a continuing reality. In the process, they have reached the postseason three times in the past five years.

The Rays parted with another homegrown pitching product, James Shields, before he could move out of their price range, in a deal with Kansas City this offseason. In return, Tampa Bay received the 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, Wil Myers, and, of course, two more coveted pitchers: Mike Montgomery, who not that long ago was one of the leading pitching prospects in baseball, and Jake Odorizzi, who is still one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.

Shields was a mainstay of the Tampa Bay rotation, but there is no disputing the ability of the pitchers who are competing to step into the open rotation spot. In fact, there is no disputing, once again, the overall quality of the Rays' rotation. Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann -- these are all people who came up through Tampa Bay's system, and they can all pitch successfully at the big league level.

The Rays have some roster churn annually, in large part as a function of their fiscal constraints. They have typically overcome this through shrewd acquisitions and, again, their ability to generate their own supply of pitching. With their kind of pitching, being in contention is close to being a given.

Closer Fernando Rodney returns, following a dominant 2012 season that included 48 saves and a microscopic 0.60 ERA. Three highly capable relievers return in front of him, and Tampa Bay has more-than-capable reinforcements available.

So the pitching isn't likely to fail this cause. The question becomes, where else can the Rays make improvements? Tampa Bay won 90 games in 2012 and finished three games out of a Wild Card spot. Improvement by leaps and bounds is not required.

Yes, the AL East could be as tough as ever, particularly with the emergence of Baltimore last season and Toronto's offseason upgrades. But one of the reasons that the AL East is such a tough division is that the Rays are in it.

One answer for the Rays' improvement is both obvious and accurate. As manager Joe Maddon put it Tuesday: "A healthy Longo," referring to third baseman Evan Longoria, the best run producer Tampa Bay can put in its lineup.

It was telling that Maddon made this particular comment about Longoria in the context of how the Rays could be a better defensive team this year. Longoria is a first-rate all-around talent, but a left hamstring injury limited him to 74 games in 2012. Longoria is 27 years old. Tampa Bay can reasonably expect much more availability from Longoria this year, and thus, better results overall.

This club still won't be anything like an offensive juggernaut, but it doesn't have to be that to reach the postseason. It is distinctly possible that the already strong pitching could be aided further by an improved defense.

"I think with [Yunel] Escobar at shortstop -- this is a guy, to me, who is potentially a Gold Glove, All-Star shortstop," Maddon said. "I think what he's able to do on a daily basis is really unique, and we haven't had that since [Jason] Bartlett provided that a couple of years ago.

"Then you talk about a healthy Longo. There are several second basemen, but they're all good. And then you have [James] Loney at first, who makes them all better. With him, you can see the smoothness around the bag, I think that was obvious from the day [the Dodgers] signed him.

"I think [Jose] Molina behind the plate last year was maligned in some ways, but unjustifiably, I thought. He ended up doing a great job for us behind the plate. A lot of the esoteric things that we look at, he's really good at a lot of the little things that don't show. And I thought [Chris] Gimenez did a nice job there, and we're working on [Jose] Lobaton constantly.

"In the outfield, we'll be missing B.J. [Upton], but overall, with [Desmond] Jennings out there [in center] and [Matt] Joyce [in left] and [Ben] Zobrist [in right], we're still really strong in the outfield.

"But I think the biggest difference could be up the middle on the ground balls, especially at shortstop."

Maddon's whole-hearted support of Escobar might raise some eyebrows, not because of any shortcomings in ability, but because Escobar has presented some difficulties for his previous employers. But the Rays are big believers in the concept that their positive team chemistry can absorb individual players into a smoothly functioning whole. And Maddon already sees that happening in the case of Escobar.

"I'm really proud of the guys," Maddon said. "They're making a strong effort to embrace the new guys and bring them into the way we do things here. It's very obvious to me how our guys are going about their business, and I appreciate it."

That kind of positive approach is always helpful, with the Rays or with any club. But the prime ingredient setting up this operation for success is baseball's most important element: pitching.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.