Manager Joe Maddon told his team in his opening spring address that the "report of our demise has been greatly exaggerated," reaffirming that the Rays' goal was to defend their American League East championship.
Despite losing several key players, including Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña and Matt Garza, the Rays' division rivals expect them to be in the thick of things again.
"I think they'll be better than last year," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "They made some really good additions. I don't think anybody that knows what's going on feels they (dropped off) in any way. I think they stepped forward more than they have back."
Though the Rays have won two of the past three AL East titles, Boston has emerged as the popular pick thanks to the offseason additions of Crawford and slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
But Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said the Rays have plenty of talent left to defend their title.
"They've got a ton of great players," Pedroia said. "I don't think anybody is overlooking them at all. They've got a great team, and I know they lost Garza, but they still have great pitching. They're going to be fine. They're going to be right there."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi has pointed to the Rays' young rotation, led by AL Cy Young runnerup David Price, as a reason they'll always be tough, as well as the aggressive style with which they play.
"When you have the rotation they have, anything is possible," said Red Sox reliever Dan Wheeler, one of the departed Rays. "The way they've been playing the last three years, and I've watched it, is just putting pressure on a lot of teams, that's something you can't overlook."
Others, such as Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher, said Rays additions Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, two veteran hitters, could be big. "They still have a lot left in the tank, in my opinion," Swisher said.
Combined with the talent Tampa Bay has returning — All-Star Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, and emerging players such as Matt Joyce and Dan Johnson — Orioles right-hander Jeremy Guthrie said it'll be a good lineup.
"They're well-balanced," Guthrie said. "They've added some veteran leadership. I think Manny will be a big addition for them, giving them a bit of experience and one of the best hitters the game has ever seen in the middle of their lineup. So it'll be interesting to see how they shake out. They could be better very easily, and they could be the same. You never know."
The question mark with the Rays is their bullpen, which had to be revamped after the departure of Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate and AL-saves leader Rafael Soriano, who signed with the Yankees. But newcomers such as Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta have pitched well in spring, as have right-hander Juan Cruz and lefty Cesar Ramos.
"They do a great job of attacking their needs and giving themselves options," Showalter said. "They've got great evaluators and coaches there, and Joe does a great job with them. I'll look for them to be even better than last year, I really do."
Then there's the intangibles. The Rays relished the underdog role during their 2008 World Series run, motivated by those who doubted them along the way. So despite predictions that Tampa Bay will take a step back, Crawford knows better.
"Those guys are still going to compete, and I'm pretty sure they're going to want to show they can win it without the guys they lost," he said. "So they're going to be motivated to do that."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]