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Tampa Bay Rays say they'll return enough talent to remain competitive

ST. PETERSBURG — As if the pall from the season-ending loss the night before didn't make for a somber enough scene in the Rays clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, there were Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña, two of the most productive players during their three-year run of success, packing up and walking out for likely the last time.

The names the Rays are expected to lose via free agency as they slice payroll from a team-record $73 million to around $50 million are significant: All-Stars Crawford, Peña, Rafael Soriano and perhaps a half-dozen others.

But it's the names coming back — David Price, Matt Garza and the rest of the rotation, plus Evan Longoria — that give the Rays hope not all will be lost.

"I don't think we have any reason to think that we're not going to be competitive next year, that we're not going to have a great chance to make the playoffs again next year ‑— especially with our pitching," infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist said. "Our pitching is what brought us this far. If those guys can pitch at that level, or near that level, we're going to be in a really good spot."

Whether the Rays can be good enough to win the 90-plus games necessary to defend their division title or at least compete for a playoff spot in the increasingly rugged American League East is a good question.

But with their rotation expected to remain intact — and the possibility of Jeremy Hellickson somehow joining the group of Price, Garza, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and James Shields — they feel they will at least be able to make their pitch.

"The starting pitching is going to be pretty much there, and these guys are going to get better," manager Joe Maddon said. "They're young … they're not even as good as they can be yet."

There are other reasons for their optimism.

One is their team-effort style of play. As dynamic a player as Crawford has been, and as many home runs as Peña has hit, the Rays may be able to replace their production from multiple contributors. (Filling the void left by Soriano, and his AL-leading 45 saves, might be a little bit tougher.)

"Whatever our lineup is, the way that we win is the same way," Zobrist said. "It's going to be with pitching, it's going to be with good defense, it's going to be with running the bases well, and hopefully we can hit. We're going to keep winning games the same way — that's not going to change. This organization is going to keep playing that way."

"I don't see any reason for it to be any different next year," Davis said.

Another reason is the amount of high-end young talent they have, and will use more prominently.

Returnees likely to get more playing time include outfielder Matt Joyce, catcher John Jaso and infielders Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac (especially if shortstop Jason Bartlett is traded).

"Nobody's really focused enough on the fact we had all these young guys playing such big roles in winning 96 games in this division," Maddon said. "It doesn't happen very often."

And they'll make more use of late-season additions such as outfielder Desmond Jennings, who could replace Crawford; Jake McGee, who should be in the bullpen for on-the-job training to eventually become the closer; and Hellickson.

"I like the underclassmen," Maddon said.

Certainly, the Rays would feel better about their chances of beating out the Red Sox and/or the Yankees for the third time in a four-year period if they could keep their band together.

But given the economic realities, they still feel pretty good that they'll have the opportunity to compete.

"You hate losing people that you'd like to keep, no question," Maddon said. "But the exciting component is having this young group come in that is very talented and knowing that you can then again grow this group into something special.

"That's how I look at it, and I feel really good that this group can play very well next year."

Or, as Garza said: "Yeah, we're going to be counted out because our big names might be gone — Crawford, Peña, Soriano. But we've still got a young core and we still have Evan Longoria. So anything can happen."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected].com.

Tampa Bay Rays say they'll return enough talent to remain competitive 10/13/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 14, 2010 7:36am]
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