During a busy offseason, the Rays changed their name (dropping the Devil), their team colors (from green to blue) and their attitude (acknowledging it was time to stop building and start winning).
But as they prepare for the spring training, they know the biggest change has to occur on the field as they seek to surpass 70 wins for the first time.
The Rays filled several holes in free agency by signing a veteran closer in Troy Percival, a much needed lefty reliever in Trever Miller and a left-handed power hitter in Cliff Floyd, and they also acquired via trades a No. 3 starter (Matt Garza), a frontline shortstop (Jason Bartlett) and a super utility player (Willy Aybar).
In addition, they solidified their future by signing first baseman Carlos Pena to a three-year deal (buying out one year of free agency) and right-hander James Shields to a deal that could be for seven years and by avoiding arbitration with left-hander Scott Kazmir and outfielder Jonny Gomes.
But they still have a number of significant questions, none bigger than the health of outfielder Rocco Baldelli, who was limited to 35 games last season because of sore hamstrings, and the status of third base prospect Evan Longoria, the elite rookie who might not get the chance to compete for a job.
The Rays are cautiously optimistic Baldelli will be back but are tempering their enthusiasm and planning to limit him to DH duties if necessary. Longoria's status could be determined before he even gets on the field, but he hopes the Rays let him take his shot.
Other questions that have to be answered:
--How will Akinori Iwamura handle the move from third base to second?
--Will Dioner Navarro be the prospect from the second half of 2007 (.285 avg., 8 HR, 31 RBI, .815 OPS) or the suspect from the first half (.177, 1, HR, 13 RBI, .491 OPS)?
--Can Al Reyes, bumped back to the eighth inning with the signing of Percival, be as effective as last season, when he had 26 saves?
--How close will Pena come to his remarkable 46-homer, 121-RBI performance of last season?
There doesn't seem to be any doubt the Rays are better. But there is no way yet to know how much better.
WHERE, WHEN: Progress Energy Park at Al Lang Field, St. Petersburg, Fla. First exhibition is Feb. 29 against Cincinnati.
Akinori Iwamura will move to second base. (AP)
TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: Akinori Iwamura is shifting from third base to second, but if he can handle that move as expected, he could make a huge difference if he becomes more comfortable at the plate in his second season in the majors. Though he showed a quick bat at time, Iwamura hit only seven home runs and had just 38 extra-base hits in his first season since coming over from Japan.
TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: RHP Dan Wheeler was re-signed for $2.875 million to avoid arbitration, but the Rays don't know what they are getting -- Wheeler is coming off a rough season in which he went 1-9, 5.30 for the Astros and Rays and didn't have command of his fastball. Even with a move from the eighth-inning to the seventh, his performance could be an issue.
AUTHORITY FIGURES: Manager Joe Maddon, 127-197 in his first two seasons, brings an upbeat personality and always positive outlook, but with his two-year option picked up and an improved team, he is expected to show a heavier hand and exert more authority. Pitching coach Jim Hickey, who was arrested on DUI charges after the season finale, was retained in part to maintain continuity; when hired last year he was the Rays' seventh pitching coach in seven seasons.
--LHP Trever Miller was signed by the Rays, who filled their final major hole and gained a reliable lefty reliever for the first time since, well, Miller left after the 2005 season. Miller has held lefties to a .238 average over parts of nine big-league seasons, compiling a career 12-14 record, eight saves and a 4.46 ERA. "Trever is going to add a lot to the bullpen on and off the field," Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "He's been very consistent getting out left-handed hitters, and his strikeouts (310 in 379 innings) are always above average. We have really missed having a consistent lefty in the 'pen the past couple years."
--INF Willy Aybar is expected to join the Rays in spring training after being freed from a Dominican Republic jail and having domestic-violence charges against him dropped. Aybar was behind bars for nearly a week but was let go when his wife withdrew the complaint and he apologized for his actions. The Rays acquired him from Atlanta in January knowing he had a troubled past (going AWOL last season and spending three months in rehab for substance abuse) but hoping he could fill a key role, potentially started at third base if prospect Evan Longoria needs more time and then becoming a "super utility" type player.
--INF/OF Eric Hinske provides the Rays insurance and a potential low-cost option at the corner outfield, first base and DH spots, as well as an alternative at third base, after signing a minor league deal. Hinske, the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year with Toronto, hit .204 in a reserve role for Boston last season.
--3B Evan Longoria hopes the Rays give him a chance to show he's ready for the big leagues. Team officials are considering deciding before the start of workouts whether he will be on the Opening Day roster, preferring not to evaluate against inconsistent spring competition and hoping to reduce the pressure and scrutiny. But Longoria, ranked among the game's elite prospects, said he would be "kind of a little disappointed" if he didn't get a chance.
--C Josh Paul's stay with the Rays looked to be over when they allowed him to become a free agent after the season, but -- with a mutual lack of better options -- he rejoined the team, though on a minor league contract. Paul is a favorite of manager Joe Maddon, and with the Rays having some concerns about the health of Shawn Riggans, the apparent frontrunner to take over the backup catcher's job, Paul could conceivably retain that role.
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- Relievers on the Rays roster with postseason experience (Grant Balfour, Trever Miller, Troy Percival, Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I know that if I focus I can become a great baseball player, but also I want to be a good father, husband and citizen." -- INF Willy Aybar, after being released from a Dominican Republic jail when domestic-violence charges were dropped.
Rays officials said they were committed to making their team better and followed it up with a significant payroll increase, from $24 million on Opening Day last season to more than $40 million, and a series of acquisitions to address their biggest needs, adding a proven closer (Troy Percival), left-handed hitter (Cliff Floyd), No. 3 starter (Matt Garza) and starting shortstop (Jason Bartlett). But they still have a number of question marks and at best are probably a .500 team.
ARRIVALS: RHP Troy Percival (free agent from Cardinals), RHP Matt Garza (trade with Twins), SS Jason Bartlett (trade with Twins), OF Cliff Floyd (free agent from Cubs), LHP Trever Miller (free agent from Astros), LHP Kurt Birkins (waiver claim from Orioles), INF Willy Aybar (trade from Braves), INF/OF Eric Hinske (minor league free agent from Red Sox), RHP Scott Munter (minor league free agent from Giants), C Mike Difelice (minor league free agent from Mets), LHP Brian Anderson (minor league free agent from Royals), INF Andy Cannizaro (minor league free agent from Yankees).
DEPARTURES: RHP Brian Stokes (traded to Mets), OF Delmon Young (traded to Twins), INF Brendan Harris (traded to Twins), OF Elijah Dukes (traded to Nationals), INF Josh Wilson (claimed off waivers by Pirates), RHP Shawn Camp (free agent, signed minor league deal with Blue Jays), LHP Jeff Ridgway (traded to Braves), INF Greg Norton (free agent, unsigned), C Raul Casanova (free agent, signed minor league deal with Mets); LHP Jon Switzer (free agent, signed minor league deal with Red Sox).
SPRING FOCUS: The two most watched people in spring training will be OF Rocco Baldelli and 3B Evan Longoria -- Baldelli is trying to come back from lingering hamstring injuries that limited him to 35 games last season and could be an impact player if healthy; Longoria is an elite prospect hoping for the chance to make the Opening Day roster.
1. LHP Scott Kazmir
2. RHP James Shields
3. RHP Matt Garza
4. RHP Andy Sonnanstine
5. RHP Edwin Jackson
The addition of Garza gives the Rays three potential frontline starters all under 27 and all under team control for at least three seasons, a trio many teams would envy.
The question, however, is how big the dropoff will be to the last two spots, whether it's the incumbents listed above or challengers RHP Jason Hammel, LHP J.P. Howell and RHP Jeff Niemann. Of those three, Niemann has the most upside but might be the least ready,
RHP Troy Percival (closer)
RHP Al Reyes
RHP Dan Wheeler
RHP Gary Glover
LHP Trever Miller
RHP Grant Balfour
RHP Jason Hammel
The Rays consider the signing of Percival to pay off in two ways -- giving them a proven veteran to handle the closer's role, and allowing all their returning relievers to slide into a lesser role.
Realistically, Percival, Reyes, Wheeler, Glover and Miller are on the team, leaving only two spots to be decided among more than a half-dozen candidates, with RHP Scott Dohmann and RHP Juan Salas probably next in line after Balfour and Hammel. If the Rays opt for another lefty, Kurt Birkins or converted starter J.P. Howell could have a chance.
1. 2B Akinori Iwamura
2. LF Carl Crawford
3. 1B Carlos Pena
4. CF B.J. Upton
5. DH Rocco Baldelli
6. RF Jonny Gomes or Cliff Floyd
7. 3B Willy Aybar
8. C Dioner Navarro
9. SS Jason Bartlett
Manager Joe Maddon settled on the unorthodox structure midway though last season, with the three left-handers at the top, but stuck with it and saw the payoff when Upton put up big numbers and Pena had a remarkable, record-setting season.
Maddon plans to keep the top four the same and seems settled on Navarro and Bartlett at the bottom. That leaves three middle spots undetermined. A lot depends on whether Baldelli is healthy enough to play regularly and whether rookie Evan Longoria makes the Opening Day roster, sending Aybar to the bench. Another issue to watch is how Iwamura handles the move from second base to third.
C Shawn Riggans
OF Jonny Gomes or Cliff Floyd
INF Ben Zobrist
INF/OF Joel Guzman
The health of Rocco Baldelli will have a big impact on the makeup of the bench; the Rays might have to consider carrying a sixth outfielder if he is limited to DH duties. Similarly, if rookie 3B Evan Longoria makes the team, the Rays could carry Aybar as a super utility type and carry an extra bat, such as Eric Hinske, who will be in camp on a minor league deal.
The backup catcher's job is somewhat wide open, with Riggans the slight frontrunner over two veterans in camp on minor league deals, Mike DiFelice, who was an original Ray, and Josh Paul, a Joe Maddon favorite who had the job the last two seasons when healthy.
TOP ROOKIES: 3B Evan Longoria is going to be an impact player in the major leagues -- the only question seems to be whether he will be on the Opening Day roster or have to spend a few months in the minors even though he has been successful (223 hits, including 44 homers, in 198 minor league games with a .934 OPS). RHP Jeff Niemann was once considered for future greatness, but a series of injuries and slow progress through the minors (17-13, 3.58, 249 K in 239 IP in three seasons) has dimmed his star -- though he could still be a contributing member of the rotation.
OF/DH Rocco Baldelli is cautiously optimistic that the sore hamstrings that limited him to 35 games last season have healed, but he won't know until the end of spring training.
LF Carl Crawford (strained left groin) missed the final 12 games of the 2007 season but is said to have intensified his workouts and could report in the best shape of his career.
C Hector Gimenez (shoulder surgery) is likely to be held back in the first few weeks of spring training.
LHP Brian Anderson (Tommy John surgery) is likely to be held back in the first few weeks of spring training.
Note: Rays Digest writer Tyler Hissey will be appearing on Sarasota Sunny 1220 Talk radio to discuss the Rays this Saturday afternoon, appearing—from 3:00 to 3:30— on Sports Café with Sean Duade. Click here to listen live.
To contact RaysDigest, send an email to RaysDigest@gmail.com.