The Rays are different this year. Literally, figuratively, philosophically, theoretically, attitudinally, there's a different look, and a different outlook. Since they last walked off the field on Sept. 30 in Toronto to when they trot onto the field for Friday's first workout of the spring, and the start of their second decade, there are a lot of things that have changed. Among them ...
What's new Bottom line
The Devil has been ditched. The team officially shortened its name to just the Rays, citing a number of reasons - the new name is catchier and less clunky, has more positive connotations, broader appeal, a new image. And they figure it's easier to market. Some would say they did this in October 2005, when Vince Naimoli was replaced as boss by Stuart Sternberg.
The green-themed uniforms were distinctive, and a definite upgrade from their original purple, black and rainbow ensembles. But new principal owner Stuart Sternberg wanted something different, and something old-style and traditional, a "classic, crisp" look, something "that had to say baseball."
And it had to be blue. The new look seems to be growing on people, but we're still not sure about the "Carolina blue" trim and what to make of that funky yellow "glint" of sun.
Usually around this time of year, the Rays dampen the typical spring optimism by talking about how they view the upcoming season as part of their long-time building process and they have to evaluate certain players for the future.
But this season, if you listen carefully, they are actually talking about winning. Maybe not the World Series championship, or even the AL East, but at least enough to be competitive. And the confidence seems to be spreading throughout the organization.
Executive VP Andrew Friedman says "there's certainly an emphasis on winning games." Manager Joe Maddon, right, says a .500 record is realistic. Players say there's now enough talent and experience in the clubhouse that they should win, convinced (barely modest) goals such as escaping last place and winning 70 games are things of the past.
Beats former GM Chuck LaMar's line about how "the only thing that keeps this organization from being recognized as one of the finest in baseball is wins and losses at the major-league level."
The Rays opened last seasonwith a $24-million payroll thatwas the lowest in the majors. TheRays figured it at around $28-million bythe end of the season, and Sternberg promised an increase of around 20 percent, which would have pushed it into the mid 30s. But instead they hiked it more than 70 percent (granted, that would be bigger news in Boston or New York) and should be around $42-million by this opening day, which would be the third highest in franchise history. Long-terms deals for 1B Carlos Pena and James Shields were part of that.
Just another $150-million or so to catch up to the Yankees.
A big deal
Teams always talk a good game about being willing to make blockbuster trades. But the Rays, and Twins, actually made one in November, with the Rays sending one of the game's best young outfielders, Delmon Young, to Minnesota for one of the game's best young pitchers, Matt Garza.
Plus, the Rays got a front-line shortstop in Jason Bartlett, and a relief prospect in Eduardo Morlan, while the Twins got infielder Brendan Harris and outfield prospect Jason Pridie.
Check back in a couple seasons to see how many All-Star Games Young has made and how many winning seasons Garza has had.
When the Rays have previously talked about building, it's usually been about a better team. But now they're talking (a lot) about a new stadium, which they envision opening in 2012 on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront site of Al Lang Field. A funding plan has to be finalized, a deal struck to redevelop the Trop site and a November referendum approved by voters.
We'll believe it when we see it built.
The Rays had to do something with troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes. His steady flow of embarrassing and troubling incidents related to an array of off-field issues and anger-management problems had caused enough problems and embarrassment for the franchise. They couldn't risk keeping him around to poison the good things they have going in their clubhouse, and he was traded to Washington.
Dealing him was addition by subtraction. To get back a decent pitching prospect, LHP Glenn Gibson, was a bonus.
Change is good
Though pleased with their foundation, the Rays still finished with the worst record in the majors last season at 66-96.
So they changed things. Since the last game of last season, they have taken 13 players off their 40-man roster and added seven from outside the organization, plus prospects LHP James Houser, C John Jaso and OF Fernando Perez.
The big deals were the signings of closer Troy Percival, who ranks 12th on the all-time saves list, and OF/DH Cliff Floyd, who has a 1997 Marlins World Series ring and immense respect as a clubhouse leader.
Gone: RHP Shawn Camp, C Raul Casanova, Dukes, Harris, INF/OF Greg Norton, LHP Jeff Ridgway, RHP Brian Stokes, LHP Jon Switzer, INF Jorge Velandia, INF Josh Wilson, RHP Jay Witasick, Young.
New: INF Willy Aybar, Bartlett, LHP Kurt Birkins, Floyd, Garza, LHP Trever Miller, Percival. Plus, invited to spring training on minor-league contracts, LHP Brian Anderson, C Mike Difelice (an original Ray), C Hector Gimenez, INF/OF Eric Hinske, 3B prospect Evan Longoria, C Josh Paul. Can't hurt.