The Tampa Bay Rays have won the American League East two of the last three seasons, thanks in part to their knack for successfully nurturing young pitchers like David Price, Matt Garza and James Shields from unproven prospects into innings-eating studs.
If they are to contend for another division crown this year, they'll need a similar improvement from Jeremy Hellickson, who threw a career-high 155 2/3 minor and major league innings last season. Hellickson, 22, became the likely No. 5 starter after the Rays traded Garza to the Chicago Cubs this winter.
Hellickson is working out in his native Des Moines, Iowa, and his dad, Steve, said that his son's cutter and slider are moving so much, he turned over his catching duties to a younger guy.
"I guess that's a good thing,'' Steve says.
So, what can the Rays expect from Hellickson this season? Andrew Friedman, the executive vice president of baseball operations, isn't sure. The Rays have a program to build up pitchers so they can withstand the rigors of a full major league season, but it varies.
"There's no hard and fast rule,'' Friedman says. "There are a lot of things that factor into it. It depends on the progress of each pitcher. We just try to find the right work load.''
Building a pitcher's strength is a deliberate process that combines daily evaluation with science and statistics.
A general rule of thumb is that a pitcher who has thrown 100-110 innings in his final college season, needs three years to be strong enough to pitch 200 innings with a progression of 20-35 innings a season.
The Rays aren't the only team that will be keeping a close eye on valuable young arms this season. In 2010, according to SI.com research, there were 31 pitchers, age 25 or younger, that made at least 25 starts last season. Several teams, knowing that a fatigued pitcher is at greater risk of injury, had to balance proper development against a desire to win immediately.
Pitchers such as Phil Hughes of the New York Yankees, Mat Latos of the San Diego Padres, Jaime Garcia of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Rays' Price were in uncharted waters when September rolled around.
The Washington Nationals had planned to shut down Stephen Strasburg in September last season before an elbow injury ended his season in August.
The Cincinnati Reds had to shut down Mike Leake because of fatigue, and the only way they kept Travis Wood, their No. 5 starter, strong into September was to skip his turn on occasion.
"You have to constantly watch young pitchers,'' says new Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who will be monitoring the workload of 24-year-old Ivan Nova, potentially New York's No. 4 or 5 starter.
"Is a guy getting sore or more tired that he should? Does he labor? It's a Catch-22, because you hate to take them out of the rotation when they are going well. If you're in a race, it's a tough decision. Years ago, you'd just let a guy pitch, doing what you have to do to win. Now, those decisions come down on the side of health.''
The Rays seem to know how to do it.
In 2007, his first full season in the big leagues, Shields pitched 215 innings for Tampa Bay, an increase of 32 from the year before. In 2010, Price went 208 2/3 innings, an increase of 45 1/3 innings from the previous season while Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis were each on their way to 200-plus innings before injuries put them on the sideline.
"Price's innings were north of where we wanted to be, but he has a good work ethic and his innings were efficient,'' Friedman says.
The Rays like Hellickson's poise and command. He throws a fastball, cutter, curve and changeup. Last season, he came up from Class AAA Durham (N.C.), and was 4-0 with a 2.37 ERA after joining the Rays on Aug. 2.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said that a 20 percent increase over last season is the ultimate monitoring device. "The backside of Jeremy's schedule may be a little different. If it looks like we have a chance at the postseason, we may have to adjust his activity.''
Maddon said that he's looking at an increase of 20 percent each for Davis, Niemann and Price.
"You don't worry about guys that have pitched seven or eight years, but these guys aren't there yet,'' Maddon said. "All three have to be watched closely. Both Davis and Niemann missed time with injuries last season, so their situations warrant scrutiny. In David's case, we extended him, so we will be watching all of them closely.''
The Rays lost five relief pitchers this winter, leaving the bullpen as a major question. That uncertainty makes the rotation, the team's strength, even more important.
Maddon, who suggested last season that a six-man rotation could be an answer to saving young pitchers from fatigue, says the rotation is the pulse of the Rays.
"I'm all for young starters going late into the game within certain parameters,'' Maddon says. "If I mess up our starting pitching and these guys go down, my goodness, we have nothing. So I'm cognizant of taking care of our starters.''
Here's a look other young pitchers that will take major development steps this season:
Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
Bumgarner turned 21 in August, but the Giants say he's ready to handle major workloads this season, his fourth as a professional.
The lefty, the Giants' first-round pick in the 2007 draft, pitched 141 innings in each of his first two minor league seasons, and then combined for 192 2/3 innings in the minors and majors last season, including 111 for the Giants as well as an impressive postseason run.
Giants general manager Brian Sabean says that Bumgarner is ready for his first full season in the majors because of his smooth delivery and his 6-5, 225-pound body.
"He's a strong kid with good balance,'' Sabean says. "He's gotten here at a young age, but his strength is evident with how he pitched in the postseason. He'll handle anything we throw at him.''
Kyle Drabek, Toronto Blue Jays
After getting a taste of the big leagues at the end of last season, Drabek, 23, will compete for a spot in Toronto's rotation this spring.
Drabek, acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Roy Halladay trade, pitched 162 innings for Class AA New Hampshire and another 17 innings for the Blue Jays last season.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos can see Drabek throwing 180 innings this season, and Anthopoulos is excited about Drabek's improved pitches:
"He's learned the value of a changeup and that's developing nicely. And, his fastball used to be straight, but now it has incredible life on it.''
Casey Kelly, San Diego Padres
Kelly, one of the pitchers that came to the Padres from the Boston Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez trade, is making impressions on Padres manager Bud Black, but Kelly's not likely to make the big-league roster out of spring training.
"He's athletic and has good body control,'' Black says. "He's got a nice repeatable delivery with good arm action and release point. He has a great feel for his changeup."
In addition to that changeup, the 21-year-old Kelly, who began his professional career as a shortstop, throws a fastball and curve.
Black said that he expects Aaron Harang to fill the role of the departed Jon Garland in the rotation. And, Black said that while the division race added 15 innings onto Latos' total, 184 2/3 innings, last season, Latos should be fine this year.
Tim Stauffer, a converted reliever, is going to "have a big challenge this spring,'' getting ready to be a starter, Black said.
Stauffer threw 82 2/3 innings last season.
Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds
Leake, 23, made the rotation out of spring training without spending a day in the minors last year and pitched well before tiring toward the end of last season.
He won eight of 12 decisions, but was shut down after 138 2/3 innings.
He'll compete for one of the two final spots in the rotation behind Bronson Arroyo, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto.
"And, we think Mike will step up and throw 20 to 30 more innings for us,'' Reds general manager Walt Jocketty says.
Jocketty says that Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban pitcher who spent most of last season in the minors as a starter, will pitch out of the bullpen this season with plans to make him a starter long-term.
"We think if he pitches one more year in the bullpen, it will help him get acclimated to pitching in Cincinnati,'' Jocketty said.
Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners
At 22, Michael Pineda, the Mariners' top pitching prospect, is taking aim at winning a job in spring training and pitching at least 200 innings to boost a rotation that has questions after Felix Hernandez, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner.
"I'm going to work hard so that I can throw 200 innings or more,'' Pineda says. "Even though I had less than 150 innings last year, that is a goal that I can accomplish. The Mariners have told me that they expect a lot of good things out of me this year, and this is one of the reasons that they held down my innings last year. They told me to maintain my strength.''
The Mariners like Pineda's determination, and some day, they can envision King Felix and Pineda at the top of their rotation. But, it is not likely Pineda is going to get anywhere close to 200 innings this season.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik says a likely goal for Pineda would be 165 innings or so, depending on the stress level of the pitching.
"There's a big difference (with stress) between minor league and major league innings,'' Zduriencik says.
Pineda, a 6-foot-5 right-hander with a fastball in the high 90s, slider and changeup, threw 139 1/3 innings last season combined at Class AA and Class AAA Tacoma. He was 11-4 with a 3.36 ERA with 154 strikeouts and 34 walks.
Andy Oliver, Jacob Turner, Detroit Tigers
The Tigers aren't sure when Oliver and Turner are going to be in the big leagues, but the team isn't afraid to put either of them on the fast track.
Both are power pitchers drafted by the Tigers in 2009. Oliver, 23, is a lefty, and Turner, 19, is a right-hander.
The Tigers' rotation has Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Phil Coke, and eventually Oliver and Turner are expected to join them.
Oliver, 23, threw 152 1/3 innings last season and went a combined 9-8 with 3.45 ERA with 119 strikeouts and 50 walks for Class AA Erie (Pa.) and Class AAA Toledo (Ohio).
He throws a fastball, slider and changeup, and Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said that Oliver needs to "have better command of his breaking pitches.''
The Tigers promoted Porcello, a 20-year-old with a sinker, to the big leagues in 2009, his second professional season, and while that's not likely to happen to Turner, he could position himself to be in the big leagues quickly.
Turner's fastball is in the mid-90s, and Dombrowski is impressed with his advancement and ability to pitch, not just throw. "He has good control and command of his secondary pitches,'' Dombrowski says. "He's good for a youngster.''
Last season, Turner was 6-5 combined at Class A West Michigan and high-Class A Lakeland (Fla.), with a 3.28 ERA, 102 strikeouts and 23 walks in 115 1/3 innings.
"These guys are young and talented,'' Dombrowski says. "You never know when they are going to put it all together.''