Playoffs?! Did he say playoffs?

Giddy Kazmir envisions the Rays playing in October. Even Maddon won't go there - yet.

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 16, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - The sun was bright, the grass vivid green, the blue uniforms majestic. And the mood, apparently, intoxicating.

Because as the Rays opened spring training Friday with a new name, new colors, new players and a new attitude, some of their stars unveiled a new - and, for this team, somewhat unheard of - goal: making the playoffs.

"What's possible? Play in October, that's possible," ace Scott Kazmir said. "That is possible. That's what I got out of Joe Maddon talking to us, and talking to all of my teammates, it's not something that's impossible. We have what it takes to win here."

Typically when Rays have talked about playing in October, it's golf. But buoyed by an offseason of key additions and a significant attitude adjustment, the players have become extremely confident there's a new Ray in Tampa Bay.

"Guys are so excited I think anything could happen this season," centerfielder B.J Upton said. "Anything."

Such as making the playoffs?

"Anything," he said. "It's going to be fun. It's going to be a lot of fun. I think everybody wants to win, and I think with that attitude it's going to take us a long way this year."

Kazmir was openly critical of the team at the end of last season, citing the need for veteran leadership and questioning the commitment to win. But with the addition of veterans such as Troy Percival and Cliff Floyd and smaller moves to fill other holes, Kazmir said, for the first time in his five years as a Ray, he feels they have a legitimate chance.

"I really thought we were just a team that was improving, that had a lot of steps to take," he said. "But now it feels like we really have what it takes to compete in the toughest division in baseball. I really, truly believe that."

It's not just the young players being impressionable.

Percival said the primary reason he spurned an offer from the Yankees to join the Rays was the potential for success, similar to what he saw in signing with Detroit three years ago, and noting how the Tigers made the playoffs the next season.

"You get a team like this, they're hungry for a reason to believe in themselves," the veteran closer said. "You look at the Yankees and they're obviously a much more experienced team, a very talented team, but this team I'll go talent-for-talent with anybody if we can get them to believe in it. That's something that I relish, getting the opportunity to come here with young guys and say, 'Look, go position-for-position with them,' and we can do that. There's not many teams out there that we can't go position-for-position with."

The optimism was so rampant on Friday that it fell to perpetually positive manager Maddon to temper it.

"Of course there's going to be a lot of people almost gleeful at this time based on what happened this offseason, the moves that we made, the amount of effort that went into the offseason, the communication. Everybody's feeling good right now, and there's reason to feel good," Maddon said.

"But again, we haven't won 70 games (but once), haven't won 81 games, haven't done any of that stuff yet. So I want to take it one step at a time. Yes, it's a realistic goal. I want our guys to always aim high, absolutely to aim high. But in the meantime we've got to take it one step at a time."

With opening day still six weeks away, they were willing to dream of big steps.

"Everybody is in high spirits," Kazmir said. "It's exciting to be a Ray right now."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.