Are the exciting Rays finally ready to be competitive?

Updated: March 24, 2008, 5:37 PM ET
SportsNation

B.J. Upton could be the next big thing in Tampa Bay.

In their short history, the Tampa Bay Rays have never won more than 70 games. Constant predictions of a breakout year have been buried time and time again by last-place finishes, with the team a nonfactor in the ultra-competitive AL East.

Could that all change this year?

A combination of perennially high draft picks and savvy trades have left the Rays with a legion of exciting, young players. For the first time ever, the Rays have three legitimately talented pitchers at the front of the rotation: Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and newly-acquired Matt Garza. No. 1 pick David Price could join them if the going gets rough. Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, and uber-prospect Evan Longoria are the heart of a suddenly-dangerous lineup. Depending on the health of Rocco Baldelli and Cliff Floyd, the second-year adjustments of Akinori Iwamura and the development of Dioner Navarro, the Rays could beat up on teams with the bat.

Of course, it's never truly easy in Tampa Bay. The team's bullpen ERA in 2007 was a staggering 6.16, which is the highest since at least 1957. The Rays' young players carry with them a lot of performance variability, and the back end of their starting rotation is shaky. Still, there's reason for hope in at least one part of Florida.

How will the Rays do in 2008? Cast your vote now!

What They're Saying

We've collected a sample of what writers, bloggers, and players themselves have said this offseason about the Rays' limitless potential. For this issue, we've chosen ESPN's Jayson Stark and Amy K. Nelson, and The Hardball Times' Chris Jaffe:

Jayson Stark: "I've had a chance now to see Tampa Bay third-base stud Evan Longoria play twice this spring. And he's caught as many eyeballs with his defense as with his sweet swing.

"Wednesday, Phillies burner Shane Victorino laid down a bunt that practically had 'hit' flashing all around it in neon lights. But Longoria came from halfway to Orlando to barehand it and throw Victorino out. Somehow. Victorino was actually laughing on the way back to the dugout at how ridiculous that play was.

"'Longoria's play on the bunt -- oh my God,' gushed his manager, Joe Maddon. 'I mean, even Victorino couldn't believe that.'"
March 3, 2007
Three Strikes: Is it Bruce's time?


Amy K. Nelson: "The organization clearly decided that the culture needed to change, and they shipped Elijah Dukes to the Nationals and Delmon Young to the Twins, in exchange for young right-hander Matt Garza. Along with Scott Kazmir and James Shields, Garza will fill out a young, promising top-of-the-rotation trio the Rays have always lacked.

"'That move, for Garza, spoke volumes,' [Carl] Crawford said. 'For the first time I felt like this organization was serious about winning. That's the reason why I think everybody is excited because everybody sees that.'"
Feb. 12, 2008
Revitalized Crawford sees hope for Rays


Chris Jaffe, The Hardball Times: "From 1957 to 2006, no bullpen posted an ERA over 6.00.

"Enter the Devil Rays. Last year, they blasted the 6.00 barrier with an ungainly ERA of 6.16. They were all-around bad, allowing opposing hitters to tee off on them with a .303/.383/.493 line, for an .876 OPS, only one point behind the Coors-inflated 1999 Rockies for worst opponent OPS ever yielded by a bullpen.

"I suppose if you look back in time, you can find a bullpen from the 1930s with worse numbers, but then again relievers threw fewer innings. This might be the most damaging bullpen ever to a team. I know there's an era adjustment that should be made with the current Silly Ball Era and before, but even in 1990 relievers didn't throw as much as they now do."
March 3, 2007
2007's most historic and impressive team splits

The Rundown: Tampa Bay's Young Studs

Evan Longoria is one of baseball's top prospects.
Evan Longoria, 3B, 22
2007 Stats (Double-A/Triple-A): .299 BA, .402 OBP, .520 SLG, 26 HR, 95 RBI, 97 R

B.J. Upton, CF, 23
2007 Stats: .300 BA, .386 OBP, .508 SLG, 24 HR, 22 SB, 136 OPS+

Scott Kazmir, SP, 24
2007 Stats: 13-9 W-L, 3.48 ERA, 239 K, 130 ERA+

Matt Garza, SP, 24
2007 Stats: 5-7 W-L, 3.69 ERA, 118 ERA+

David Price, SP, 22
No. 1 pick in 2007 amateur draft