Optimism reigns supreme

Optimism reigns supreme for '06 campaign

After finishing the 2005 season on a high note, the Devil Rays open the 2006 season with similarities to the group that went 39-34 after the All-Star break in 2005. Accompanying the sense of continuity is a renewed hope for the team.

"The strengths, I think, are the same that we thought coming in [to Spring Training]," said new manager Joe Maddon. "You look at the team on the field, it's a pretty good team on the field. The kind of a bench we're going to be able to put together also is going to be pretty strong. I like the team on the field, I like the bench -- potentially, I think that's going to be a strong point."

On the field, the Rays will have an infield of Travis Lee at first base, Jorge Cantu at second, Julio Lugo at shortstop and Aubrey Huff, who broke into the Major Leagues at third base, returning to the hot corner, which gives the lineup an added offensive boost by freeing up another slot in a crowded outfield.

Led by left fielder Carl Crawford, the Rays' outfield is rich with talent. Rocco Baldelli returns in center field after missing all of last year due to knee and shoulder surgeries, and Jonny Gomes, with his powerful bat and infectious enthusiasm, will be in right.

Maddon's bench will have speedy Joey Gathright serving as a backup outfielder and designated hitter. Other standouts on the bench will include catcher Josh Paul and newcomer Alan Wigginton, who can play every position.

Only eight teams in Major League history have bested the Rays' rare combination of offensive numbers shown in 2005, when the team hit .274 with 151 stolen bases and 157 home runs.

The Rays have led every team in baseball in stolen bases during Spring Training this year, which is a good indication there will be more of the same during the regular season. Leading the way are Lugo and Crawford, who had 39 and 46 steals, respectively, which was the most combined steals by American League teammates since 2001, when Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki and Mark McLemore teamed up for 95.

"The baserunning, I've been really happy with that," Maddon said. "We've talked about effort on the bases -- I like that."

A glaring weakness from 2005 was the team's 124 errors compared to 88 by their opponents.

"We were concerned about the defense coming into the season based on last year's numbers, but so far so good," Maddon said. "I like what we've been doing defensively [this spring]."

The Rays will begin the year with the same rotation with which they ended the 2005 season -- starting with Scott Kazmir in the No. 1 spot, followed by Seth McClung, Casey Fossum, Doug Waechter and Mark Hendrickson.

"The starters are probably going to be better than what we thought coming into [Spring Training]," Maddon said. "I think they can be noticeably better, actually, because they're a bit more experienced. I've been impressed with the stuff. I think [pitching coach Mike Butcher] has done a good job with them. I think they've made some nice subtle changes to what they're doing. ... I just think it's a matter of more experience that makes them better. And I just think they're in a good place mentally right now. That also makes them better."

The question mark comes with the team's bullpen. Specifically, how will the team deal with the departures of closer Danys Baez and setup man Joe Borowski, who preserved most of the Rays' 2005 wins?

"The biggest concern I probably have is to attempt to get the proper seven people in our bullpen," Maddon said. "Part of it is also the resiliency. There are some unknowns in regard to the starting rotation, a little bit. Once they learn how to get into the sixth or seventh inning with more consistency, then you probably can go back to 11 [from 12 pitchers on the staff]. And furthermore, talking about the names of the people themselves in the bullpen, some guys just haven't had a great track record in the Major Leagues yet. We're hoping to establish that. So again, we don't know that. I don't think we're trying to be too smart with this. I think it's more of a pragmatic or realistic issue."

So while the starting staff is young and the bullpen is a question mark, optimism reigns supreme in the Rays' camp heading into the 2006 season.

"I'm very happy with our guys right now," Maddon said. "I'm very happy with how they're going about their business. I know what's expected of us based on what's been written, etc. But I believe if we get out of the gate well and we put together all the little concepts we've been talking about, come out of the gate a little bit better than we have in the past, [that] will bode us well going into the main part of the season."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.