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Rays enter '08 with optimism

ST. PETERSBURG

They've changed the name, the colors, the logos, the uniforms and even the outlook. ¶ Now there's just the little matter of changing history. ¶ There is so much new and different about the Rays since Stuart Sternberg took over ownership 30 months ago, so much hope that things will be different, and faith that good times are finally ahead. ¶ "We have reversed our direction," team president Matt Silverman said, "and set ourselves on the path we need to be on."

Their progress can be measured in many ways. From tangible evidence, like attendance and TV ratings and Web site hits and merchandise sales — which the Rays say are all up. To intangible areas like image and reputation and perception, which all appear greatly improved.

But after what arguably is the worst first decade a major-league team has ever endured, their success in putting their past behind them ultimately will be measured by the most basic standard: wins and losses.

"You just want to try to go out and do good and get rid of all this negative stuff that's been going on," said Carl Crawford, the longest-serving Ray. " & The better things get, the more we forget about the bad stuff."

As they open the season Monday in Baltimore with what looks to be the best team they've had in their 11 seasons, and amid great expectations, there are some significant reasons to think the frustrations of the past may indeed be behind them:

A little S-E-L-F R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The Rays have been called the laughingstock of baseball. They've been labeled a joke, and playing for them has been compared to a jail sentence. And that has been by some of their best players.

A big step in changing the outside perception of the organization is changing the reputation from the inside — in the front office, and in the clubhouse.

"We have to believe it first for it to ring true in the community," Silverman said.

The Rays sent the message to the players that things were different under the new regime with their words, and their money. They rewarded Carlos Pena for his breakthrough season with a three-year, $24.125-million contract. They signed James Shields to a deal that could be worth $44-million over seven years. They say they plan to explore similar deals with their other young stars.

They've done little things as well. When new closer Troy Percival said he had some concerns about how the bullpen was set up inside Tropicana Field, they quickly agreed to reconfigure the area so the relievers can communicate better and are no longer sitting against a wall with fans behind them.

"Most definitely to them, the players and the fans are the most important," outfielder Jonny Gomes said, "and I don't think in the past those two were very high on the totem pole."

While no workplace is ever free of grumbling, the change in the clubhouse has seemed dramatic.

Shields said players would come to the Rays for a chance to be in the major leagues, "and as soon as they got to the big leagues they wanted to leave. It's a lot different now as far as that goes. I think people actually want to be a Ray."

Said executive vice president Andrew Friedman: "Your own players are usually the hardest to convince, especially with our lack of history. And their optimism is real. It is prevalent throughout our clubhouse and our minor-league system. It's the first time I think our players up and down the organization are truly happy to be Rays."

Destination: Tampa Bay

For years, Tampa Bay was a major-league destination of last resort. Free agents signed only when they couldn't find anything else, and players dreaded being traded here.

Friedman said the Rays have made "quantum leaps" in changing that and points to two examples.

"We weren't in a position two or three years ago to sign a Troy Percival or a Cliff Floyd; they wouldn't have come here," Friedman said. "(But) this offseason, we sensed a completely different tone on the other end of the line talking to agents and players. There were a number of guys being talked about whose agents called us and said so-and-so is interested in coming to Tampa Bay, and I think that's the first time that ever happened."

Percival agreed.

"A few years ago, in the same situation I am now, I probably wouldn't have even looked here," he said. "They're getting the fact that, you know what, let's make this as good a place to play as possible and players will want to play here. The front office is doing things pretty much right. It's becoming a first-class organization. & Other than the fact that it's a bit of a dreary stadium, it's a great place to play baseball."

"It's Tampa-St. Petersburg. It's a great place to play," said reliever Dan Wheeler, who lives year-round in Seminole. "We live on the beach. You put a winning environment here and who wouldn't want to be here."

A new concept: Trying to win

For so many seasons the Rays were building for the future. But now they are going into a season talking about playing competitively — and maybe even into October.

"I don't think there was the perception (that this was) an organization that was trying to win," Percival said, "and I think that perception has definitely changed."

That changed for a number of reasons, including a 70-plus percent increase in payroll that allowed them to retain their core of top young players while adding some key free agents.

But it was also a matter of changing a culture of losing that had infected the entire franchise.

"When I got here (in 2006) the sense I had was that people just liked being here to say they were on a major-league ballclub, and if we didn't win that was somewhat okay," manager Joe Maddon said.

And if that wasn't enough of a problem, there was this:

"A lot of the young players came up here really having not done anything and expecting to have positions augured out for them," Maddon said. "And if you got on them about anything, they were offended by it.

"It was really, again, part of the culture. It was a bad cultural environment. We had to change the way people think about nearly everything."

Wheeler said it works both ways, with players having more trust in ownership, citing how Sternberg said he'd be open to adding to the payroll during the season.

"When we take the field knowing our owner has our back, that's huge," Wheeler said. "They said they want to bring a winner to Tampa Bay, and they're doing it."

The national media has bought in, with the Rays being widely picked to blow past the franchise-record 70-win mark and make at run at 80. Even Chuck LaMar, the general manager through their first eight seasons, acknowledges the possibilities.

"From the players to the staff to the new spring training facility to just everything, I truly believe they have turned that corner," he said. "All that's left, and people have made fun of me for a long time about my quote that the only thing remaining is to win at the major-league level, but in Tampa Bay's case that truly is it."

No minor matter

The Rays have a core of young players who have the potential to be stars for a long time. Evan Longoria and David Price are 22, B.J. Upton 23, Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir 24, Carl Crawford and James Shields 26.

And those are just the ones already in the majors, or who will be shortly.

Their future is even brighter based on a farm system ranked No. 1 overall by Baseball America the past two years. In the latest rankings, the Rays had seven of Baseball America's top 100 prospects, nine of ESPN.com's top 78 and six of Baseball Prospectus' top 40.

"For me, the Rays have the best balance of talented young hitters and a talented, deep core of pitchers of any organization in the minor leagues, though the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Dodgers and Red Sox are certainly in the discussion," said Baseball America editor John Manuel. "It's the depth of the pitching and the potential impact of the young hitters that really makes the organization stand out for me — high draft picks, sleepers, projects, instant prospects like David Price and Evan Longoria. They really have it all."

And, with an extensive commitment to scouting and development, they plan to keep it that way.

"It's critically important now, and it's something that will be equally important when we're winning 90-plus games," Friedman said. "For us to be able to sustain a winning team over an extended period of time it's critically important for us to have the talent in the minor leagues to either provide depth in terms of injuries, to provide currency for trade, or (for) replacements if we lose a player to free agency."

MLB preview 2008

Rays enter '08 with optimism 03/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 12:53pm]
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