It is all about winning series. Tonight James Shields takes the mound in the rubber match against the Twins with a chance for the Rays 3rd series win in their last 4. And we are glad it is Shields toeing the rubber. We have said this before. James Shields is the Devil Rays’ best pitcher right now. Scott Kazmir has a chance to be great. A chance to be a perennial all-star and the talent to be a hall-of-famer. But right now, Kid K is inconsistent. There are still too many outings in which he has to be removed after 5 innings with 110 pitches. We just never know what to expect when Kazmir is pitching. On the other hand we have extreme confidence in Shields right now. We expect 7 innings and 2 runs from Shields. We expect 8 strike outs. And with this offense, that should be enough to win. On a good night Shields is capable of a 2-hit shutout. On a bad night, we will still get 6 innings and a chance to win the ballgame. We can’t say the same thing about Kazmir.

In today’s blog entry at ESPN.com, Buster Olney writes about Shields.

So Shields has made his own adjustments, and the Devil Rays’ right-hander — who starts today against the Twins — has become one of the most underrated pitchers in the majors, racking up 37 strikeouts in 36 innings this year, and a 3.75 ERA. He is learning to pick his spots with that changeup, which is among the best in the majors, seemingly diving into the ground as it nears the plate.

We couldn’t agree more. In the off-season we thought that Shields had proved he could be a serviceable major league starting pitcher. Maybe a good #4. We hoped that the rest of the staff could just hold the rotation together until Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot made the jump to the majors in mid-season. Niemann was supposed to be the #2 pitcher to compliment Kid K in the rotation. Little did we know we already had our #2, and right now Niemann is looking like a great option as a #3. And none of this takes into account the torrid starts at AAA of Jason Hammel and Andy Sonnanstine. Hammel has 39 strike outs in 32.3 innings with a 2.48 ERA. Sonnanstine has 37 Ks in 30 innings with a 2.70 ERA. By August, the Rays starting rotation should look like this:

  1. Scott Kazmir
  2. James Shields
  3. Jeff Niemann
  4. Jason Hammel/Andy Sonnanstine/Mitch Talbot
  5. Edwin Jackson

As of this post, the Devil Rays still have the worst ERA in baseball and are one of only two teams with an ERA north of 5 (5.95). Jae Seo (8.19) and Casey Fossum (8.58) have the two worst ERAs in all baseball. That’s not a typo. The two worst starting pitchers in baseball both pitch for the Devil Rays and somehow the Rays are in third place. Fossum is the only pitcher in baseball without a fastball and Seo’s fastball is mid-80s with about as much movement as an elephant. Seo was a little better his last time out, but right now 6 innings and 2 runs is the best we can expect. Most nights are going to be closer to 4 innings and 5 runs. Same with Fossum. On his best nights, the Rays will have a chance, but that is only when he has perfect stuff. Most nights won’t be in the same zip code.

The questions then become: What can the Rays do with Seo and Fossum and to a lesser extent Jackson? Can any or all of the above be moved? Can they be serviceable in the bullpen? How much seasoning do the horses in AAA need? At what point does Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon say “Let’s see what we got”? It is almost that time. We are trying to be patient, but we hang our head every time we see Seo and Fossum take the mound and then read the boxscore from Durham the next morning. And yes, the kids will take their lumps in the big leagues. That’s ok. But at least there is upside in their young arms. With Seo and Fossum, what you see is what you get.

In the meantime, James The Greater goes to the mound tonight with a chance to give the Rays a series win over the Twins, and we are excited. We wouldn’t want any other pitcher on the mound.

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