Rays see that hump approaching fast

Top to bottom, the club believes a big leap forward is coming soon.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

TORONTO - They'll close out their first decade of decadence today with plans to change their name, their color and their look before returning to the field next spring.

But what will really matter is when the Rays change the results.

And despite finishing with the worst record in the majors for the second season under Stuart Sternberg's ownership and Andrew Friedman's general management, team officials and players insist they are close to turning the perennial losers into big winners.

"Closer than people think and realize," manager Joe Maddon said.

With a core of dynamic young position players and a pair of pitchers and what is considered one of the game's most talent-laden farm systems, the Rays believe they can make a quantum leap with just a few additions.

Friedman said he expects "significant improvement" next season. Sternberg, though promising only a meager increase in the game's smallest payroll, went so far last week as to say that with the right moves they could be a "playoff caliber" team by next season.

"We don't need much," All-Star Carl Crawford said. "Maybe another starter and probably a little more bullpen help. Just three players and we're right there. We're right at the tip."

The Rays are buoyed by their improved play since revamping their troubled bullpen, with a 27-31 record since July 29 (as opposed to 38-65 before).

Starter James Shields said the progress is not only evident inside their clubhouse. "Other teams are actually talking about us being competitive," he said. "I hear guys on other squads, even the Yankees and Red Sox, saying we've got to play these guys tough because we know they'll play us tough."

The Rays - who've yet to win more than 70 games and finished last for the ninth time - have claimed to be headed in the right direction before. But what's different this time, they say, is the quality of the talent - though, as Scott Kazmir said, they could use some veteran leadership - and the change in mind-set to believe they can win.

"I think we need fewer players than ever before," Friedman said. "Where we stand today is much better than where we've been in the past. The guys in the clubhouse are starting to puff their chests out a little bit more and starting to believe they can win, and that's such a vital component of actually winning."

Another difference?

Their key players aren't leaving as free agents or - team officials promise - because they're too expensive.

"This time it's different because we actually have the players and everybody's coming back," Crawford said.

The struggles of winning 61 and 65 games the past two years were not without benefits. Though "very disappointed" in the record, Friedman says they were able to evaluate and make decisions on a number of players in determining what they had and what they need in focusing on getting better.

"Our goal isn't to win 71 games or 81 games," he said. "I've read a lot of people saying that next year we're going to be .500; that's not our goal. We've seen teams go from 60-something wins to the high 80s/low 90s. It's not impossible. But it's going to take the focus of everyone in the organization from the top down, and that includes every player."