On the verge of a breakout

The Rays may be in last now, but this young lineup is promising.

By JOHN ROMANO, Times sports columnist
Published April 20, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- Already, it is that time of the season.

Three weeks in, and the Devil Rays are in last place. Three weeks in, and the bullpen has blown leads and expectations. Three weeks in, and you are tempted to dismiss the entire season as the latest in a long line of failures.

The scene is entirely too familiar except for this detail:

These guys can play.

Caught you by surprise, hasn't it? After 15 games, the Rays were second in the American League in runs per game. They were tied for the league lead in home runs, second in slugging percentage and tied for third in walks. They were tied for second in stolen bases.

Naturally, those numbers will fade. Perhaps, even, by May. But there is potential that should last for years to come. For the first time in forever, the Rays have a lineup that will look even better tomorrow than it does today.

A lineup with punch. With speed. A lineup that makes you understand what it's like to look forward to a summer of box scores.

"There are some places we have to get better at. We all know that," manager Joe Maddon said. "But I think it's legitimate to say there are 15 guys here who can be part of a championship team someday, and they are here already.

"When some of the other young guys come up to augment this group, it's going to get really fun."

Once, this was a clubhouse in limbo. Half the guys were past their prime, and the other half wished they had one. It was Vinny Castilla and Wade Boggs on their way out the door and Brent Abernathy and Bobby Smith on a path to nowhere.

Today's lineup is fresh and soon to be a fixture. It is full of 20-somethings. Guys who are still years from free agency and hungry to make their marks.

Scoff, if you must. After all, the Rays are 6-9 and have a bullpen that makes you yearn for the days of Esteban Yan. But how can you look at this lineup and not understand the giant leap forward that has been made?

On this day a year ago, the Rays put Joey Gathright, Russell Branyan, Tomas Perez, Travis Lee, Toby Hall and Damon Hollins on the field.

Now, Tampa Bay is regularly trotting out Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, Elijah Dukes and Akinori Iwamura.

They will not all develop into All-Stars, but you can make a case that every one of them has the potential.

The pitching is still way behind, but even that will get better when Mitch Talbot and Jeff Niemann arrive some time around June.

And, from there, it will be possible to see how this team might actually become a contender. Reid Brignac is hitting .325 in Double A and will be the shortstop before the end of next season. Evan Longoria has 69 RBIs in his first 75 games as a pro and will stand next to Brignac at third base.

The days of rent-a-bodies are in the past. In the past two seasons, the Rays have been more circumspect in the type of veterans they have chased, and they've come up with Ty Wigginton, Iwamura and Al Reyes.

The bullpen may need an overhaul, but that's not quite as daunting as having to build a lineup or a rotation.

"Not only do we have a strong group of guys beneath them, but we control these guys for a lot of years, so fans can get accustomed to seeing these faces and these names," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "That's what's unique in this day and age, to have this talented core that has a chance to be together for many, many years."

There are still issues. The players are young and are too often clueless when it comes to the focus and discipline required of a 162-game season.

This is what Baldelli was referring to last week when he blasted the team for being too complacent the day after beating Johan Santana in Minnesota.

And it will happen again.

There will be days when the Rays appear as if they are playing with one foot already on the dance floor. That immaturity was never more evident than in the way the Rays played harder in clubs than in stadiums on road trips last season.

Remember, this is a team that won three road games after the 2006 All-Star break. Already this season, the Rays have won four on the road.

"When things go well, people tend to relax. I don't want that to ever happen," Maddon said. "As things go well, I want you to continue to grind it out and understand that, the moment you do relax, it goes away.

"That is my biggest concern. They have to learn that when things go well, it's because of all the work they put in."

It will not come together overnight. Or even over the course of this season. Chances are, the Rays will again be in last place and will again be flirting with 90 losses or more.

But that doesn't mean it will be the same.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8811.