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The future is now

In 10th season, Rays assemble most talented team

Posted: Monday March 5, 2007 2:10AM; Updated: Monday March 5, 2007 3:18AM
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Out(field)standing in the East
The AL East has three of the best outfields:
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Carl Crawford
- Speedster hit .305 with 58 stolen bases in '06
Rocco Baldelli
- Center fielder hit .302 in '06 return from injury
Delmon Young
- Former No. 1 pick homered in his '06 debut
Boston Red Sox
Manny Ramirez
- Perennial 30 HR/120 RBI hitting machine
Coco Crisp
- Disappointed with .317 OBP in first year with Sox
J.D. Drew
- Sox newcomer has .393/.512 career OBP/SLG
New York Yankees
Hideki Matsui
- Averaged 110 RBIs first three years in Bronx
Johnny Damon
- Career-high 24 HRs in first year in NYin '06
Bobby Abreu
- .419 OBP in first half-season with Yanks in '06
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Delmon Young, talented as they come with a future as big as his swing, threw a bat that hit an umpire smack in the chest last spring. Maybe you heard about it? Elijah Dukes scrapped with a teammate, a coach and an umpire, B.J. Upton was arrested for driving while intoxicated and the lowly, hard-luck Devil Rays -- the big-league employers to Young, Dukes and Upton -- won a measly 61 games. They've never won more than 70.

So get over it already, OK? That's old news. Tired news. Past tense. It's time to move on.

This is Year 10 of baseball in Tampa Bay, and all over the Rays' spring training camp in St. Pete are signs that the Rays, and a few of their more publicized players, finally are prepared to put their past in the past. The Rays have assembled what is, almost indisputably, the most talented team in the franchise's near-decade of existence, one with arguably the best outfield in baseball. Everybody in green has bought into super-positive manager Joe Maddon's system hook, line and split-finger. The franchise even has a name change in the works, though that won't happen this year. (The word on the Tampa Bay street is that the Devil Rays may soon be known as, simply, the Rays.)

The Devil Rays still have problems, of course. They still play in the big boys' division, the American League East. They're painfully young, still. But the Rays have promise, too, and that's something, in these parts, that's rarely been said with this much conviction.

"There's a bunch of talented players on this field," Andrew Friedman, the team's second-year general manager, says as he surveys one of the practice fields at the team's spring training complex, "that are going to help us for a lot of years."

Tops in that bunch are Young, Dukes and Upton. Their pasts have been as rocky as the Rays' -- maybe, if it's possible, even rockier -- but they're facing up to their transgressions this spring and embracing Maddon's program. That, alone, is a positive step for both the players and this franchise.

Young, sitting at a table in a mostly quiet clubhouse at Progress Energy Park in downtown St. Pete, breaks out a wan smile when he hears the questions coming. The incessant replays of his bat striking an umpire in the chest during a minor league game last April made him the most famous bat-slinger since The Riddler. He was suspended for 50 games, fined, forced into community service and, not least of all, vilified nationally.

Young, 21, listens to a visitor's questions and readies to punch them back like so many batting practice fastballs. He spends way more time talking about his bat-toss than he does about his future, making it all but impossible to put the incident behind him.

"How do you?" he says to a reporter. "When you guys stop asking me about it, that's when it'll stop."

Young says this nicely enough, though with a measurable amount of exasperation. But the fact that he doesn't storm away with smoke pouring from his ears probably speaks volumes about how far he's come. Earlier in the week, Maddon predicted that Young would handle himself better this year, and through at least three interviews in a couple of days last week with various media members, Young did his manager proud.

"I really think he's going to do a great job, on and off the field this year. That's my call," Maddon says. "He's going to handle it in a way that's so good, you'll be surprised."

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