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The future is now (cont.)

Posted: Monday March 5, 2007 2:10AM; Updated: Monday March 5, 2007 3:18AM
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Elijah Dukes is one of seven Devil Rays on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list.
Elijah Dukes is one of seven Devil Rays on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list.
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Dukes, too, has tried to put his volatile reputation to rest. His '06 minor-league season was a mess of off-the-field missteps, including one early suspension for his row with a teammate and a later one for a run-in with an ump. He also angered Tampa Bay's front office with his self-important ways. Complaining about minor-league living conditions, he told USA Today, "Those guys up there [in the majors] shower in Evian. Here, we use sewer water." Dukes' year ended with a suspension, and in January he was arrested for possession of marijuana.

Now Dukes, 22, is simply trying to concentrate on making the big-league team. Right now, he slots in as an extra outfielder behind Young, Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford, or a designated hitter. With another misstep, he may well find himself without even that, back in the minor leagues without his Evian. Dukes, friendly and controlled in conversation, knows it, too.

"I got to stay on the field and stay out of trouble," he says. "That's all."

Upton, 22, played 50 games in the big leagues last season and has big plans to stay around this season, though exactly where is a question. The Rays would probably like to see him take over the job at second base, but he can play outfield, too.

If those three players stick, they'll team with talents like Baldelli, Crawford, catcher Dioner Navarro and lefty ace Scott Kazmir (10-8 with a 3.24 ERA last season) to give the Rays more talent -- and promise -- than they've ever had. Yes, there are concerns in the infield, and the pitching depth is a question. The team doesn't have an established closer.

Still, the hopes are there, even playing in the grinder of the AL East. When Lou Piniella guided the Rays to a 70-win season in 2004, it marked a high point for the franchise. Piniella left after winning just 67 games in '05 and then last year, the first under Maddon and Friedman, the Rays tumbled to 61 wins, the second-worst season in their brief history.

"Last year was a like a learning curve for everyone," says Kazmir, a first-round draft pick of the Mets in 2002 who was traded to the Rays in '04. "Us, the staff, everyone. Now, we're going to see what we've got.

"This is finally the time. We've got our guys up in the major leagues. It's finally coming around to what we expected it to be."

Nobody has higher hopes for this season than Dukes and Young.

"You can see from the transition in the roster in the last couple of years that [we're] moving the right way. The system is almost all the way to the big leagues now. Some are in the big leagues. Now we just have to form out," Young said. "We still have a ways to go, but with the talent that we have and the talent coming up, it should be closer than everyone thinks."

Says Dukes: "We're good. Now. We have a bunch of guys who are going to want to show up to play. I believe that, this year, we can play over .500 ball."

If the Rays can pull that off for the first time in their tortured history, they may never look back.

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