PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Rays were holding live batting-practice sessions Monday on the back fields of Charlotte Sports Park, a typical sight on a late-February morning in a Spring Training camp.
What wasn't so typical was what was happening on the periphery. There was Matt Moore, scoping out staff ace David Price's performance. There was injured starter Jeremy Hellickson, done with his daily rehab work and, in lieu of going home, offering input immediately after each guy came off the mound.
The scene was an extension of Sunday, when Price wasn't scheduled to throw but could be found crouched behind the mound dutifully studying the stuff of his fellow starters, rubbing up the baseballs before BP and helping to pick them up afterward.
This is the underrated element the Rays love about their starting staff -- a staff that, with Price still on board after a winter full of trade speculation, has a chance to be as good or better than any other in club history (and that's a high bar).
"I remember sitting in my office in January," said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "Guys were throwing bullpens at the Trop in January. And while they were throwing their 'pens, they had eight to nine teammates watching them. Everybody's high-fiving each other as they finish. That camaraderie is special."
The Rays recognize the special circumstances at play in 2014. It's why they didn't deal Price for the sake of dealing Price, despite the prickly financial picture his $14 million salary creates. And it's why they've propped up their payroll to a team-record level -- a level Friedman readily admits is "unsustainable" -- despite the usual lag in attendance revenue.
"To do that really says a lot," Hellickson said. "I think the goal is definitely to win that last game every year. But I think it is heightened a little bit this year with the team we have."
Indeed, nobody reasonably expects Price to remain a Ray past his arbitration expiration after 2015. But for now, having him atop a rotation in which Moore and Archer still have upside as they refine their electric arsenals and Cobb builds off a breakout 2013 puts Tampa Bay in a prime competitive position in a division that demands it.
"This could, hands down, be the best rotation we've had," Price said. "These guys all have one more year of service under their belt. They've experienced that length of the season, they've pitched during the playoff push at the end of August and in September. For us to have that experience is big."
All winter, Price and his rotation mates kept in touch with a string of group text messages ("It probably started with somebody sending some stupid picture," Price said with a smile) and, yes, Price was prodded every so often about his situation and his standing.
"We'd ask him, 'Hey man, have you heard anything?'" Moore said. "That type of stuff. What we saw on the TV was kind of the extent of what we knew was going on."
The Rays' open-door policy regarding communication between player and front office ensured that Price was never completely in the dark about his status. And for the most part, teams' unwillingness to part with premier prospects made for a quiet winter on that front, despite much hype to the contrary going into the Hot Stove season.
So the outside noise did nothing to distill the duties that come with being a member of Tampa Bay's rotation. Duties that involve not only the silly texts but also the substantive schedule, the process of propping each other up.
"I feel like, with this group of guys, you can see the strides taken in the offseason," Moore said. "Seeing what Chris Archer and Alex Cobb were like going down the stretch last year, you can see there was some preparation involved in getting them to that place.
"You have to take advantage of the chance to learn from somebody who's on another level. I don't need to sit at home and see what's on cable television. I can watch our ace pitch."
For the Rays to establish a staff of several aces, they'll need more length out of Moore and Archer. Moore needs to limit his walks and prove he can get through a season sans fatigue. Archer probably needs to expand his repertoire in two-strike counts to increase his K rate and avoid wasted pitches. Both hope to improve upon their 5.5 inning-per-outing average from 2013.
"We can all get better whenever we have two outs, just being able to shut that inning down instead of giving up a two-out hit and then a guy steals a base and you give up a hit for another run," Price said. "That's when a lot of damage is done in this league. It's amazing to see the numbers that happen with two outs. All of us have to hunker down and get that last out and get the defense off the field."
The Rays saw Cobb take that leap in 2013, and his seven innings of work in the American League Wild Card Game in Cleveland, on a night in which he had an effective fastball and little else, was a revelation.
"It was incredibly special to watch," Friedman said.
Cobb and Price give Tampa Bay a special one-two punch, with the tantalizing possibility of what Moore and Archer can still become and valuable depth not just in veteran Erik Bedard (who has a decent shot to crack the Opening Day rotation) but also the young Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome and Enny Romero, who combined to make eight starts at the big league level last year.
This is not a rotation loaded with proven, bankable commodities, but the upside is appealing. And for a Rays team that, based on runs scored and runs allowed, outperformed its Pythagorean win expectation last season by five pivotal games, that upside is especially important.
"As a scout, you've got to absolutely love this group," manager Joe Maddon said. "In theory, there's some really, really athletic, good arms out there, absolutely. Are they going to be the best we've had? Theoretically, as a scout, you would project that, but we've got to play it."
Until they play it, the starters will practice it. One bullpen session and spring start at a time, under the watchful, helpful eye of their mates in what could develop into a World Series-caliber rotation.