Rays Opening Day outlook

Rays Opening Day outlook

Building from within is the gist of the Devil Rays' long-range plan and the 2007 season will provide an initial litmus test for indicating whether the idea has merit.

Wholesale changes did not take place in the offseason for the simple reason that the Rays want to see what they are producing down on the farm; take them out for a test drive, and see what areas need to be shored up for the future.

Already, the team has seasoned young veterans in Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Scott Kazmir. Coming on strong are Delmon Young and James Shields, and there are plenty more where they came from.

So what the organization wants to see as a whole in 2007 is more movement toward changing the culture of a franchise that has never won before. If the youngsters on this year's team can get closer to .500 -- or even surpass .500 -- an expectation level will be created for the likes of Evan Longoria, Reid Brignac, Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot and the countless other prospects seasoning in the competitive environment of the Rays' farm system.

Winning and the belief that this team is ordained to win needs to become part of the mind-set for youngsters arriving to the Major Leagues. And the Rays believe they have the players to start a move in that direction in 2007.

BATTING ORDER
1. Carl Crawford, LF:
The reigning American League stolen-base king moves back to the leadoff spot, where he should further showcase his unique abilities. In addition to being a quality fire starter, Crawford owns a .321 career average with runners in scoring position.

2. Ben Zobrist, SS:
The switch-hitter has a disciplined approach at the plate and gives the Rays a more traditional No. 2 hitter. He won't mind taking a pitch to allow Crawford some freedom on the base paths.

3. Rocco Baldelli, DH:
A standout since breaking in as a rookie in 2003, Baldelli has struggled with injuries. He missed much of the 2006 season before returning to hit .302 with 16 home runs and 57 RBIs in 92 games.

4. Ty Wigginton, 1B:
In his first season with the Rays in 2006, Wigginton led the team in home runs (24) while playing an assortment of positions. Wigginton brings a hard-nosed style to the team and a blue-collar work ethic.

opening day 2007

5. Delmon Young, RF:
Young is a superstar waiting to happen. After spending September in the Major Leagues, there are no doubts in the organization that he will flourish. Other than needing a little more discipline at the plate, Young is a polished player in the field and in his approach to hitting.

6. Akinori Iwamura, 3B:
Iwamura was the Rays' most visible offseason acquisition. It's likely he won't hit for as much power as he showed while playing in Japan, but many of his homers should turn into doubles and triples. He has a quality glove and above-average speed.

7. Dioner Navarro, C:
Navarro calls a good game and is not afraid to block the plate. He hits from both sides and is an emerging offensive player. There are questions about whether he can stay healthy given the problems he's had with his hamstrings.

8. Elijah Dukes, CF:
Dukes is a potential five-tool player with plenty of speed and power. Center field is his best outfield position, but he might experience some trouble adjusting to Major League hitters.

9. B.J. Upton, 2B:
Upton seems closer to finding a Major League position than ever before at second base. The 22-year-old brings an unparalleled athleticism to the position, where the Rays hope he will blossom offensively and make the routine defensive plays.

ROTATION
1. Scott Kazmir, LHP:
Paced the Rays' staff with 10 wins last year, but that was a disappointment since he suffered a stiff shoulder in the second half and did not pitch much after the All-Star Game. When Kazmir is on, few pitchers in baseball are his equal.

2. James Shields, RHP:
Entering his second season with the Rays, Shields appears to be a quick learner. After starting 4-0 for the team in 2006, opposing hitters began to sit on his changeup -- which is his best pitch. He has since found better fastball command, which makes his changeup even more of a quality pitch.

3. Casey Fossum, LHP:
Fossum struggled with his health in 2006 and the difference could be seen on the nights he was healthy. He had left shoulder surgery in September and seems to have found the missing zip and movement to his fastball. He should make a successful return to the rotation.

4. Jae Seo, RHP:
Seo came to the Rays in a midseason trade with the Dodgers. He showed above-average competitiveness in 2006 and an ability to adjust, as a tweak to his delivery brought about an improvement of five mph to his fastball.

5. Edwin Jackson, RHP:
The right-hander enjoyed a good spring that saw him win a heated battle for the fifth spot in the rotation. Jackson split time as a starter and reliever in 2006 at both Triple-A Durham and with the Rays. Jackson has quality stuff, and Rays management believes he just needs a confidence boost to succeed.

BULLPEN
Entering the season, the Rays' bullpen lacks a true closer, so it's likely the team will use a closer-by-committee approach to start the season. The 'pen does have a host of solid setup guys in Shawn Camp, Ruddy Lugo and converted starter Brian Stokes. Veteran Al Reyes has been added to the mix, as well as right-handers Gary Glover and Juan Salas, both of whom had an excellent spring. There is a good chance one of the setup guys will earn the closing spot in the early part of the season.

BURNING QUESTION
Can the Devil Rays throw strikes? 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. Walks had a lot to do with that standing as Rays pitchers allowed 165 more walks than Rays hitters received.

ON THE RECORD
"I know a lot of people say it, but I truly believe the baseball gods will get you that extra blooper whenever you move a guy over. You see that on winning teams." -- Wigginton

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