Rays looking to move forward

Rays look to move in positive direction in 2007

Moving forward often requires moving backward initially. Yes, this is a cliché when talking about organizations looking to improve, but it hits the mark where the Devil Rays are concerned.

The Devil Rays lost 101 games in 2006. But if all goes as planned, the Devil Rays' 2006 season will be remembered as the year the organization righted the ship under a new ownership, a new general manager, and a new manager. Now that much of the foundation has been laid, Rays fans can look forward to steady improvement in 2007, a season in which glimpses of a bright future are eagerly anticipated.

"I think we're in a much better position than we were last year," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "A lot of that has to do with the depth we acquired last year. Obviously, players in our own organization, trades [and] the draft [are] continuing the development process.

"And if you look at our Double-A and Triple-A rosters, there's going to be a lot of very good players on those rosters. Not only do we have the depth, which allows this organization to talk about the future, but now the future is imminent. We've got guys who will conceivably be up this year. And they'll be here for a long time."

Friedman believes the Rays have successfully created a competitive environment within the organization.

"We've seen that this spring with guys coming in in better shape," Friedman said. "Guys working harder, and it's going to be a meritocracy, they'll have to earn their jobs and play well enough to keep their jobs because there are guys behind them that are very talented as well."

Rays fans will have plenty of young talent to watch perform and grow this year. Nowhere is that talent more apparent than in the outfield that boasts of three potential All-Stars in Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young.

Crawford is the reigning American League stolen base champion and remains hungry to improve every year.

"I don't know how much better he can get," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But I know he's driven. ... As a baseball player, I think he's got a ways to go and he'd be the first to tell you that. The home runs should keep coming up, stolen bases will hopefully stay the same if not more based on how much he beats himself up. Defensively, you're going to see him get even better than he is."

Crawford has a delightful air about him and always seems to carry a light mood. Having been around since 2002, he's looking forward to seeing what the Rays will be like in 2007.

Just seeing what's going to happen, how the team's going to shape up," Crawford said. "You know we've got so many question marks coming into the season. You just want to see how it's going to shape up. So that's what I'm looking forward to, seeing what kind of team we're going to have out there."

opening day 2007

One thing is for certain, the Rays' outfield has the potential to be one of the best in baseball. Crawford doesn't seem comfortable with the hype.

"Yeah, you know, a lot of potential out there, everybody seems to have heard about it," Crawford said. "Hopefully we can live up to those expectations everybody has for us. Hopefully we can reach that potential."

Rounding out the offense are steady Ty Wigginton and Greg Norton, who will play several positions, with newcomer Akinori Iwamura at third base, Jorge Cantu at second and Ben Zobrist at second.

How the young pitching staff performs will play a major factor in how this year's Rays fare. Staff ace Scott Kazmir will lead a rotation that will include right-handers Jae Seo, James Shields and Edwin Jackson, and left-hander Casey Fossum.

In the bullpen, the Rays will not have a defined closer to begin the year, but they have a collection of arms that could morph into a formidable group highlighted by Ruddy Lugo and Brian Stokes.

Despite lowering the team's ERA from 5.39 in 2005 to 4.97 in 2006, the Rays ranked 27th in the Major Leagues in overall pitching. Meanwhile, the Rays bullpen was the Major Leagues' worst by allowing 15.01 base runners per nine innings, 10.55 hits per nine, and 40 percent of inherited base runners to score.

Free passes had a lot to do with that standing as Rays pitchers allowed 165 more walks than Rays hitters received.

Well aware of the problem, Maddon likes to point out "you can't catch a walk."

"Strike-throwing to me is the key," Maddon said.

New pitching coach Jim Hickey has brought along a simple sounding concept to try and find a solution to the problem. In essence, according to Maddon, the Rays want to "Meatloaf" the opposing team, which was a reference to an old Meatloaf song, "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad."

In 2006, opposing hitters hit .220 (177-for-804) when facing a 1-2 count against Rays pitchers and .340 (120-for-353) when facing a 2-1 count.

"It's overwhelming what happens when you get to those two different counts," Maddon said. "Obviously, the numbers support that if we manage to get more 1-2 counts than 2-1 counts we should be more successful."

Asked about expectations for this year's team, Friedman said he's always hesitant to name a particular win total.

"We want to see our young players to continue to develop," Friedman said. "Last year, I think we saw some guys take a step backwards -- whether that was due to injuries, lack of performance -- we want to see the guys continuing to develop and get to a point where they're producing results and you can still see more up side with them."

Friedman said a number of the organization's young players will need to get close to realizing their potential in order for the team to become competitive in the tough American League East division.

"And obviously that's hard with prospects, but I think we've got enough depth and enough inventory where we can very easily project that," Friedman said. "But you never know until you play the games and you play a season to see exactly where you stand. But I think it's very reasonable to look around the group and identify a large core of guys who are going to help us win a lot of games."

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