tampabay.com

Maddon envisions Rays cracking .500

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 11, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG - The Rays open spring training five weeks from today convinced they have fewer questions than before and confident they'll end up with more wins than ever.

At least 81, from what manager Joe Maddon envisions. "I think it's a reasonable goal," Maddon said. "But of course I don't want us just to stop there."

The Rays have their reasons for aiming high. They made a series of offseason moves though traded away a potential star in Delmon Young to improve their pitching and defense, project marked improvement by their young stars, increased payroll to more than $40-million to retain their core players, and have shifted the emphasis from developing to winning.

"I feel very confident that we're going to be a much better team in '08 than '07," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Our goal is to play in October, and we will not be content until we reach that level and we're in a position where we can sustain that level for many years.

"I'm certainly not writing off this year. We've got a very young team that's extremely talented. A lot of it is dependent on their continued maturation."

Certainly, the Rays, coming off a majors-worst 66-96 record, have some questions.

The two biggest are whether third-base super-prospect Evan Longoria will be deemed ready to open the season in the majors (a debate expected to continue into the spring) and how much they get from oft-injured outfielder Rocco Baldelli (who is said to be healthy). There also are holes for a left-handed reliever and utilityman who can play first and third, two spots in the rotation and concerns about depth.

But Maddon's confidence is based on what they have: front-liners at first (Carlos Pena), second (Akinori Iwamura, shifting from third), shortstop (Jason Bartlett, acquired from Minnesota), leftfield (Carl Crawford), centerfield (B.J. Upton) and catcher (Dioner Navarro); a three-man platoon of Baldelli, Cliff Floyd and Jonny Gomes for the rightfield and DH spots; a top-three rotation of Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza (acquired from the Twins); and four trusted relievers in Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, Gary Glover and newly acquired Troy Percival.

"Percentagewise what does that equal? I just know that it's so much more clearly defined where we're going this year than the last two years," Maddon said. "It is night and day."

Also:

- Former big-leaguer Tim Bogar was hired as an additional "quality assurance" coach. He will compile advance scouting information, work pregame with players on bunting and baserunning and spend the games in the stands analyzing the team's play. Bogar is charged with keeping the Rays "ahead of our own mistakes," Maddon said.

- Friedman said he will "be surprised" if the Rays don't settle their four remaining arbitration cases (Gomes, Kazmir, Pena and Wheeler) before their self-imposed deadline of Jan. 18, when figures are to be exchanged. Friedman's policy is that once figures are filed negotiations cease and they go to a hearing.

- The Rays are talking about plans to play a series at Disney, likely April 22-24 vs. Toronto.

- Top pitching prospects Wade Davis, Chris Mason and Jake McGee, shortstop Reid Brignac and Longoria were invited to major-league spring training.

- Former bench coach Bill Evers was hired as a pro scout with some player development responsibilities. ... Nick Paparesta was promoted to be a third big-league trainer as the team increases its "injury prevention" program.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.