February 29, 2008


Rays of hope: Overhaul of talent, attitude has team thinking big (Scott Miller, Feb. 28, 2008, CBSSports.com)

Yes, just like George Jefferson himself, these Rays, finally, seem to be movin' on up.

Of course, posting the first winning season in franchise history would be evidence.

But if you talk to one particular veteran talent evaluator, who just happens to have specialized in pitching ninth innings during most of his career, he'll tell you that this well could be a -- gulp -- playoff team in the very near future.

Even if the Rays still reside on the same block as resident bullies Boston and New York.

"The talent level is here," says veteran closer Troy Percival, "I got abused when I signed with Detroit (before the 2005 season) because they had lost 120 games (119, actually, in '03). But I went through that roster before I signed, and that team was really talented. Two years later, they were in the World Series.

"I did the same thing here. What I liked was that there were young, talented starting pitchers here. And young, talented players."

Percival signed with the Rays this winter after his longtime friend, manager Joe Maddon, placed a few recruiting calls. Maddon's basic message: This place was a mess last year, but that has been fixed. And there's some outstanding talent.

"The pitchers I'm seeing around here this spring," Percival says. "When I went to Detroit, I was seeing (Joel) Zumaya and (Justin) Verlander and two or three other kids who threw 95, 96. I came here and I'm seeing the same thing.

"Price, the ball is just jumping out of his hand. Jeff Niemann ... we have those arms here."

None from the group of Price, McGee, Davis and Niemann (ranked 99th on Baseball American's Top 100 prospects) project to crack Tampa Bay's opening day rotation. Right now, that's reserved for Scott Kazmir (currently shelved for two weeks after a strained left elbow sent shudders through Rays camp this week), Garza, James Shields (184 strikeouts against only 36 walks while posting a 3.85 ERA in 215 innings pitched last year) and, at this point, Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson.

Upton, just 23, smashed 24 homers, collected 82 RBI and compiled a .386 on-base percentage last year. Left fielder Carl Crawford, a veritable old man on this team at 26, is a two-time All-Star.

The Rays fielded the second-youngest club in the majors last season at 26.7 years, and though they finished with baseball's worst record (66-96), what playing all those kids did was allow, as Friedman says, the club to "decide who we were going with for the long haul."

Dukes and his criminal record? Young and his penchant for not running out ground balls? No longer around to drive management crazy, or to tempt other kids to go half-speed.

"There was a sense of entitlement last year," Maddon says. "There was a scholarship program. We don't have that anymore. The attitude has just been tremendous."

Instead of young punks thinking they're owed something, there are veterans like Percival and outfielder Cliff Floyd who are looking to give back some of what veterans offered them when they were young. And that peer group influence has been especially dramatic here in Rays-ville.

Example: Coach George Hendrick gathered the outfielders for a session the other day, then asked Floyd if he'd like to add something.

"He absolutely nailed it," Maddon says. "He was talking not only about defense and positioning, but about communicating with each other. He eloquently explained it. I had been a big fan of his, but I really became one at that moment.

"When a peer brings the message, a student will not find any allies if he has complaints about that message."

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 29, 2008 12:29 PM

Indeed, and the Rays proposed new stadium looks like it'd be a great place to see a ball game too.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at February 29, 2008 1:25 PM

Also, I believe Dave Pinto posted about this a few days ago:

The biggest improvement with the Rays this year will be their defense, which was abysmal last year, but is projected to be above average this year. That alone would make them a .500 team I believe, let alone better production from the youngsters hitting and pitching.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at February 29, 2008 1:27 PM