ST. PETERSBURG — So much has been said about what the Rays are missing after an offseason of departure, with 11 relevant players leaving as free agents and two more in trades — including franchise star Carl Crawford, three other All-Stars, their No. 2 starter and almost their entire bullpen — changing the face and form of their team.
But as they hang their 2010 American League East championship banner tonight moments before David Price throws the first pitch of the new season, they remain confident they have the pieces — even with their payroll down 42 percent to $41 million — for a repeat performance.
"We're going to be a very dangerous team," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "I think to a man we feel like we're being underestimated on a national level.
"We have a lot of talent on this team, and our mind-set is to shock the world and defend our AL East crown."
They believe they can absorb the loss of No. 2 starter Matt Garza with the ascension of rookie Jeremy Hellickson and the offense — with the addition of veterans Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez and bounce-backs by B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist — can be better than last year's, which was third in the AL with 802 runs.
The concerns are the defense, specifically the losses of Crawford in left and Carlos Peña at first, and the massive overhaul of what had been one of the league's best bullpens as they start with a crew short on late-inning experience and success.
"I believe that we are good enough to repeat," manager Joe Maddon said. "I do. I believe the guys that we brought in are really going to surprise some folks. I think guys like Manny and John, keeping them rested is going to permit them to have really outstanding seasons. And then the new guys … have the potential to contribute greatly."
"I think we have a playoff team. I really do," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "A lot has to do with the fact that we're really comfortable together. … And I think the talent's there, 100 percent."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.