Moves signal that club feels its time is now

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 2, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The Rays' business philosophy is to be opportunistic. Whether they are motivated by the opportunity to win more games or more votes for their new stadium plan is something for the columnists to debate.

But there seems no doubt the Rays are making a serious effort to make their team better. (And, for those who keep score this way, more expensive, as the payroll ekes past $35-million.)

While trading Delmon Young was a huge risk, they filled two holes by getting SS Jason Bartlett and No. 2-3 starter Matt Garza. The signing of closer Troy Percival was a big deal. And they say it's still "a priority" to add a left-handed bat, and there's money to spend, with Darin Erstad perhaps the best fit.

"In '06 and '07, our focus was on development. It really had to be. We didn't have the requisite amount of talent at the major-league level," executive VP Andrew Friedman said.

"It was much more about, 'This guy's coming, this guy's coming,' and kind of projecting out. Last year was very valuable for us in terms of getting that nucleus of guys the experience, fully appreciating where our strengths were and what areas we needed to be aggressive to target. And we feel like ... we've gone a long way toward addressing those deficiencies and it's going to pay large dividends for us in '08 and beyond."

In other words?

"There's certainly an emphasis on us winning games," Friedman said.

PERCY, PERCY: Friedman flew to California two weeks ago so he and manager Joe Maddon could make a face-to-face pitch to Percival, and the 21/2-hour meeting paid off big-time.

"You see an organization that's trying to do everything right, and I wanted to be a part of it," Percival said.

And he's excited about the potential, going as far as this: "I'm not saying we're going to the World Series this year. But I don't discount it. I watched Colorado and Arizona, young teams with talent, go out and make a good showing."

Maddon, meanwhile, called Al Reyes to tell him he'd been supplanted at closer by Percival, and would be used, with Dan Wheeler, in the seventh and eighth innings in what is now a "thicker" bullpen.

"Al was great," Maddon said. "He said, 'I want to win,' so whatever it takes."

RAYS RUMBLINGS: There's talk of longtime Rays man Bill Evers, who wasn't rehired as bench coach, staying on to work in scouting and player development. ... Radio announcer Andy Freed is a strong candidate for a job with the Mets. ... Reaction in baseball circles to the Young trade was mixed, but in an espn.com poll of more than 30,000 fans, it was a landslide, 74-26, that the Twins got the better deal. ... The Rays split the difference on Saturday game times, sticking with 7:10 early and late in the season and 6:10 in the summer. ... Unofficially, the Al Lang Field spring finale looks to be March 28 vs. Cincinnati. ... The day after ex-Ray Joe Kennedy collapsed and died Nov.23, his wife, Jami, attended the St. Petersburg wedding of former Rays minor-leaguer Derek Anderson and read the best-man speech Joe was to deliver. ... Reliever Travis Harper, out since August 2006 with a shoulder injury, is planning a comeback. ... Former pitching coach Chris Bosio is back in the game, hired by Cincinnati's Double-A Chattanooga team.