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Friday, November 7, 2008
Rays pitchers told to take it easy this offseason

Andy Sonnanstine has mapped out plans for his offseason. He'll be heading to a celebrity poker and golf tournament in Las Vegas later this month, and he's going to find a place in Tampa. He's going to hang out with friends.

And he's going to sleep in, day after day -- the kind of sleep where you roll over, glance at the clock and then close your eyes for another cycle or three of rapid eye movement, like a college kid back home right after exams. "I'm probably going to take it pretty easy," said Sonnanstine. "This is definitely the longest season I've ever been a part of."

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When Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey hears this, he will be thrilled, because above all else, he wants his charges to recover this winter. He doesn't want them throwing, doesn't want them running marathons, doesn't want them to discover their inner triathlete. He wants them working very hard at resting.

Because as the Rays are well aware, recent baseball history is littered with teams that suffer a physical hangover from a playoff run that takes them deep into October. The Red Sox had all hands on deck in winning the World Series in 2004, and many parts of the staff broke down in 2005. The White Sox's championship staff of 2005 significantly regressed in 2006. Chris Carpenter led the Cardinals to a title in 2006, and he's never been the same. The Tigers' pitching staff was fractured by numerous injuries in 2007, with staff members convinced that the team paid a heavy toll for the remarkable success of 2006.

The Rays' biggest challenge for 2009 might not be in identifying a solid closer, or determining whether Rocco Baldelli will be healthy enough to be their right fielder, or getting B.J. Upton back from shoulder surgery. Rather, the critical factor might be the ability of the Rays' young pitchers -- most of whom set career-highs for innings in 2008 -- to recover strongly and repeat their collective performance in 2009.

Consider the innings counts (minors and majors) for the Rays' rotation, the postseason included:

  2007 2008
James Shields 215 240
Scott Kazmir 206.2 190.2
Matt Garza 175 209.2
Andy Sonnanstine 201.1 210.1
Edwin Jackson 161 187.2
David Price -- 129.1

Even before the end of the Rays' regular season, Hickey said, the staff had discussed how they planned on preparing the pitchers for 2009, knowing that spring training next year will begin a week early. "Spring training is only 12 weeks away," Hickey mused on Thursday. "I want them to flat-out rest. I want a whole four or five or six weeks of nothing but healing and resting up. … Whether they know it or not, they'll be a bit weary."

Hickey would approve if his pitchers did some low-bore physical conditioning over the next six weeks or so, before easing their way back into their preparation for 2009.

There's no need for them to pick up a baseball, for example, until the turn of the year, as far as Hickey is concerned.

Then, in spring training, Hickey already has loose plans to reduce the number of pitches and innings thrown by his starters. Typically, starting pitchers will have built up their arms by the end of spring training to where they are throwing 105 pitches over seven innings. Hickey will probably reduce the number of outings for his starters by one, and his relievers will make fewer appearances. The build-up before the exhibition season begins will be more gradual, with the throwing sessions staggered. It's possible, as well, that Tampa Bay will have more pitchers in camp in 2009.

The alterations may not sound like much, Hickey says, but he is cognizant of saving wear and tear whenever and wherever he can, after his young starters worked for the first time in a postseason, when every pitch is thrown with much more duress, as he said.

It may be that the Rays' young starters will be OK because -- well, because they're young, and can bounce back. But Hickey will work specifically to guide Rays pitchers, because unlike the veterans he's worked with in the past -- Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, among others -- the Tampa Bay starters may not know their bodies as well, this early in their careers. "You'll rein them in a little bit more than you would old guys," he said.

Sonnanstine will embrace the opportunity to rest. Pitching five innings in the postseason, he said, was like pitching 10 during the regular season. Because of the early start to spring training, he said, "I'll have to factor that into my plans."

Joe Maddon has a lot on his plate, writes Joe Smith, what with a wedding dropped into the middle of his offseason.

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