Posted: Friday March 25, 2011 2:00PM ; Updated: Friday March 25, 2011 2:00PM
Jon Heyman

Re-made Rays still look like a threat in competitive AL East

Story Highlights

Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza left Tampa Bay

The Rays are young and talented and have top prospects on the verge

The Phillies suddenly have more holes than many had once expected

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Joe Maddon
Joe Maddon may have a tough time bringing a third AL East title in the past four years to Tampa.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays lost their star left fielder, Carl Crawford to the rival Red Sox for $142 million, more than three times their $41 million total payroll. They lost their slugging first baseman, Carlos Pena, to the Cubs for whom he quickly became their team leader, seemingly within moments of joining them.

The Rays also traded talented no-hit pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs and their starting shortstop, Jason Bartlett, to the Padres, the only team with a lower payroll than theirs. And virtually their whole bullpen had to be replaced, including the two most key components, Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit, who are now with American League rivals the Yankees and Tigers, respectively.

Yet, the defending AL East champions -- yes, they did win the division, don't forget -- aren't giving up. The Rays clearly emphasized the future by letting all their many free agents leave, trading Garza and Bartlett and stockpiling draft choices (they have an unprecedented 12 among the first 89 picks in the coming draft), but competitors don't believe they have sacrificed their present. Nor do the Rays look at it that way, either.

"I like their pitching, and they are very athletic. I think they'll be better than people think,'' one competing AL executive said.

The Rays' perpetually upbeat manager, the erudite Joe Maddon, agrees. "All the little things are starting to show up right now. I like where we are,'' Maddon tweeted under his tweet name @RaysJoeMaddon at noon on Friday.

The Rays, as usual, will be very young, except for the duo of ex-Idiots, 37-year-old Johnny Damon and 38-year-old Manny Ramirez, who have made a nice impact since signing simultaneously. Ramirez, in particular, is trying hard to show he's an ex-idiot in more ways than one. He has taken a 90 percent pay cut to $2 million and came to camp with what appears to be greater resolve and improved attitude to go along with hints of an enhanced power stroke. He's joked he's the "Travelin' Man'' after accepting several long bus rides from the sparse enclave where the Rays train. "He's been very good,'' said Maddon.

LEMIRE: Ramirez has been one happy camper with Rays

A critic might note that Ramirez has had more honeymoons than Liz Taylor. But there's always the hope, even following separate struggles last year in Mannywood and Chicago's South Side, that maturity might finally be at hand for Manny, who has yet to complain about his unusually low salary or even the extra spring travel. Ramirez was said to be hoping this winter for either Toronto or Tampa, an odd pairing of teams (he explained the Floridian preference by saying, "My family is in Miami.'')

Folks around the Rays are heaping new praise on the ultra-talented B.J. Upton, who might finally be ready to rise to stardom after two years of surprising sub-.240 hitting and years of questions about his levels of concentration and hustle, even within his own ranks. Maddon has noticed a major change for Upton, the former No. 2 overall pick, saying, "He has a much more mature look, and much more mature thoughts. Players arrive at the moment where they finally get it. I think he's starting to get it.''

Still, some might wonder whether the time is right for the Rays, and that even includes some Rays. "We've got a lot of holes,'' one Rays person said, honestly. Tampa Bay rose from perennial loser to consistent winner (and became one of the greatest surprise World Series qualifiers in 2008) thanks in large measure to its stellar defense. That should be strong again, although young unproven power hitter Dan Johnson could be an issue in that regard at first base. "He can't move, I mean not at all,'' one scout noted.

When folks talk about Tampa's potential troubles, though, they start with that 'pen of unknowns. One competing executive called the relief group "pretty shaky,'' and that is indeed the conventional wisdom with Soriano, Benoit, Grant Balfour and Randy Choate all gone. Rays executive Andrew Friedman, who formed a superb bullpen out of almost nothing last year, when the Rays' seeming hodgepodge of relievers had an American League-best 3.33 ERA and league-low .228 batting average against to go with a best 23-16 won-loss record, is calling around to see if outside help is available. "We continue to have dialogue with other teams,'' he said.

In the meantime, the hope is the bullpen can be a pleasant surprise once again. Maddon isn't complaining. "The whole bullpen has thrown very well," he said recently. "Our bullpen guys are having a great spring. All our bullpen guys are throwing strikes with good stuff. What I'm seeing is the makings of a good bullpen right now.''

Before last year they spent $8 million to sign Soriano, so they were set at closer. But this year is completely a shoestring group, with up-and-down veteran Kyle Farnsworth by far the most accomplished reliever in a group that's hard to name. Joel Peralta (0.00 ERA this spring) is the second most established pitcher in their 'pen. The hope is lefty J.P. Howell could be back in May after missing all last year, but until then the bullpen candidates include Juan Cruz (1.13 spring ERA), Jake McGee (0.90), Cesar Ramos (3.24), Adam Russell and longtime long man Andy Sonnanstine.

At first glance, that doesn't sound like a group that's going to be able to compete in baseball's best division. But Maddon said, hopefully, "At some point guys who are obscure have to become household names.'' That seems to be his motto at times.

Thanks partly to Maddon, one competing executive said it would be a mistake to discount them. "They're going to find a way to be in the mix,'' that exec said. "Their bullpen is pretty scary but Joe mixes and matches so well nobody gets overexposed. People are saying they're going to be out without Garza. But don't go to sleep on them. They're a pretty good club.''

Like no one else, the Rays have taken advantage of some very low finishes by capitalizing with excellent draft choices. Their 12 early picks this year is unprecedented, though there has to be concern whether the low-revenue team that has decreased its payroll from $73 million will find the funds to sign all their new draftees. (Owner Stu Sternberg said they will have the money to do so, though he conceded it may depend to some degree on the "demands'' of the players they pick).

In the meantime, their previous drafts continue to benefit them. Reid Brignac is ready to take over for Bartlett at short. And it won't be long before Desmond Jennings, Crawford's outfield heir apparent, surfaces. But the newest young star might be starter Jeremy Hellickson, who was slowed this spring by a blister, a hamstring and dizziness, pitching only six innings (albeit with a 1.35 ERA). He appears on the verge of stardom. He was 4-0 in a late-season cameo last year, impressing folks most with his varied repertoire and poise. "The guy makes adjustments midgame that 10-year veterans don't make,'' one competing scout said.

The whole team is famous for its on-the-fly adjustments. They are a great one for surprises. Pena himself said no one should overlook them. "I think they'll find a way,'' Pena said a couple weeks ago from Cubs camp. "That's a gold mine for talent, not only in the majors but the minors, one of the best organizations in baseball. And [Friedman] is a magician.''

That is true. But he and co-magic man Maddon will have to show it again this year.
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