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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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2007 MLB Preview
Wishcasting a future of results, not hope
By JOHN ROMANO
Published April 1, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - Imagine if, after all this time, the fates were kind.
Imagine if there were no more bonus-baby drug binges. If the kids were quiet, and their bats were loud. If a frugal style revealed itself as a shrewd plan.
Imagine if it was Tampa Bay's time.
Is it really so hard to envision?
Look beyond opening day. Picture a 2007 season that goes about as well as can be expected for the Devil Rays. And then imagine what you might see.
* * *
Here, in late August of 2007, the mitts are popping. One after another, the Rays are sending talented, young arms to the mound.
It is not the number of victories that are telling the story. It is the amount of progress that has been the first clue as to what lies ahead.
For instance, Scott Kazmir is not even close to 20 wins. Not quite yet with this team. Not quite yet at this age. Instead, it is only important to know that Kazmir's shoulder has proven capable of carrying the load of a No. 1 starter.
So now that Kazmir is on the way to 33 starts, and is soon to hit 195 innings, they are dancing in the halls of the executive suites. Because the talent is there. Kazmir, everyone knows, will win if he stays away from the disabled list.
And, by now, he has company. Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot have joined him in the rotation after strong starts at Triple-A Durham. And James Shields is a more consistent pitcher than in his rookie season.
This means the Rays have four starters in the rotation at age 25 or younger. This means performance has finally replaced hope.
* * *
Here, in early September of 2007, they are joking about days gone by. They are teasing Elijah Dukes about the shower-by-Evian crack. They are making fun of B.J. Upton's collection of gloves. They are mocking Delmon Young's temper.
They are also marveling at how quickly things have come together.
Young, naturally, is the least surprising of the bunch. He had the talent, of that there was never a doubt. The questions involved his discipline at the plate. And his demeanor everywhere else.
You knew he would eat up the bad pitchers. The ones who didn't, or couldn't, get him to chase breaking pitches impossible to drive. It is his improvement against the front-line starters that has been so heartening.
The strikeout-to-walk ratio is still ugly, but there are signs of growth. Of understanding how teams are pitching to him, and of his own adjustments.
Offense didn't come quite so easily to Upton, but the season has been a breakthrough, nonetheless. He let go of the idea of being a shortstop, and the Rays ended the experiment of a super utility player.
Upton has found a home at second base, and the Rays still have the offensive potential they craved at a defensive position.
As for Dukes, he has been the most intriguing of all. A loose cannon and a Rookie of the Year candidate wrapped into one.
Once, he seemed to epitomize Tampa Bay's worst fears. Today, he is the example of what might be possible.
This means the Rays have seven hitters in the lineup at age 26 or younger, with Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac on the way.
* * *
Here, in mid December of 2007, they are buzzing at the winter meetings. For the first time since 1999, the Devil Rays are in the hunt for big-money contracts.
The Reds have declined a $13-million option for Adam Dunn, and there is talk the Rays are interested in moving him to first base and putting his 40-homer bat in the middle of the lineup. Others are talking about the possibility of Tampa Bay acquiring a left-handed bat in a trade.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the Rays had a dozen or more players on the roster who could not have won jobs anywhere else. Today, the Rays clubhouse has become a much more exclusive place.
Pitchers such as Casey Fossum and Jae Seo are now looking at jobs in the bullpen or with some other team. Hitters such as Ty Wigginton, Jonny Gomes, Jorge Cantu and Akinori Iwamura are now looking at reduced roles or new zip codes.
With several players arbitration-eligible, the payroll is closing in on the $40-million range, but the Rays still have the flexibility to spend more after coming in under budget in 2006 and '07.
A .500 record in 2008 seems well within reach.
* * *
Back here, in the spring of 2007, this is merely conjecture.
A fanciful look at a best-case scenario possibility.