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Tampa Bay Rays say they're not far from returning to postseason in 2010

RAYS 5, Yankees 3: Akinori Iwamura congratulates B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro after Navarro’s two-run homer in the second, which helped rookie Jeff Niemann earn his 13th win. Story, 4C

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

RAYS 5, Yankees 3: Akinori Iwamura congratulates B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro after Navarro’s two-run homer in the second, which helped rookie Jeff Niemann earn his 13th win. Story, 4C

ST. PETERSBURG — They opened their home schedule hanging their American League pennant in front of the Yankees, and they'll finish it today watching as the Yankees head off into the playoffs seeking the next one.

The distance in the standings between the Rays and the Yankees (18 wins) as well as the wild-card Red Sox (10) was significant. But the Rays are confident they don't have to change much to close that gap and get back to the playoffs next season.

"We feel like we have the nucleus in place to be very competitive in 2010," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "It's not necessary that we have to dramatically change the face of the team to get back, but it's doing some tweaking and figuring out the optimal mix."

Manager Joe Maddon said the differences that kept them out this year were miniscule. The key players seem to feel the same way.

"We're definitely not far off," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "We definitely have the people here and the young players to do it."

"If the pitching staff comes around and the lineup stays the same," leftfielder Carl Crawford said, "I definitely think we have what it takes to get back."

So what do they have to do?

Personnel

Only a few changes are expected, with the top priorities improving at catcher and adding a couple of quality relievers (but likely not a closer). They'll look at trades, but dealing Scott Kazmir freed up enough money that they'll have some financial flexibility.

The rotation seems set and with tremendous potential, James Shields, at 28, the oldest of a quintet of Matt Garza, David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis.

Outfielder Matt Joyce and infielder Sean Rodriguez are in line for promotions from Triple A and may be the only position players added (potentially replacing Gabe Gross and Akinori Iwamura). And though they'll listen to trade offers — particularly for disappointing DH Pat Burrell — they're not expected to make any big deals.

"It's obvious where we need to make some moves," shortstop Jason Bartlett said, "but for the most part we have all the talent here."

Performance

The Rays don't feel they need better players to improve their offense and defense, just that their players need to do better.

They set team records for runs, homers, extra-base hits, walks and stolen bases but need to improve what Friedman called the "distribution" of their runs — 42 games with seven or more, 70 with three or fewer.

Also, Maddon said, it's "imperative" they improve in situational hitting — getting runners home from third, making productive outs.

The defensive decline was somewhat unexpected, but Maddon considers it easily addressable, a matter of "making the routine play on a more consistent basis."

Basically, Shields said, it's a matter of "having a little better chemistry as far as on the field. There was a lack of execution, just the way we played the game this year. We were really good at times, and we were really bad at times."

Approach

The one benefit of this season, several Rays said, is the lesson they learned — "monumental," first baseman Carlos Peña called it — about handling their previous success. And the first two agenda items are about being ready at the start, and not falling behind early.

Maddon maintains their 9-14 April was as much a reason for their disappointing season as the 11-game September losing streak and the inadequacies in the bullpen, and, in retrospect, others do, too.

"I think we were riding last year at the beginning of this year," Bartlett said. "I think next year we know what we have to do, we know we have to come focused from Game 1 and play hard; things aren't just going to fall in our lap again.

"I think we've got all the talent in the world here, we've just got to get the right mind-set."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays say they're not far from returning to postseason in 2010 10/03/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 4, 2009 9:37am]
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