Rays show glimpses of promising future

Rays show glimpses of promising future

ST. PETERSBURG -- Year 10 for the Devil Rays ended pretty much like the other nine years, once the wins and losses were sorted out.

But unlike other years, Rays fans finally have a team in place they can be optimistic about and talk about enthusiastically over the winter.

"Talent-wise, we're way up there," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations. "But experience is going to be the biggest hurdle for us. And I think we saw fewer mistakes [at the end of the year] than we did earlier in the year. That's going to benefit us greatly going into next year, with all the added experience, kind of learning on the job."

Among the many highlights of the 2007 season was the starting pitching tandem of James Shields and Scott Kazmir.

Shields raced off to a 6-0 start and could have been even better had the bullpen not suffered lapses in games he started. Shields finished with 12 wins and he became the third pitcher in team history to reach 200 innings in a season, throwing 215. Meanwhile, Kazmir struggled with his control early in the season, but came on strong in the second half to lead the team in wins (13), in addition to surpassing the 200-inning plateau.

The good news for Rays fans is that more pitchers like Shields and Kazmir are on the verge of being ripe for the Major Leagues.

"[There are] a great deal of extremely talented pitchers who have a real good chance to fit in for us, either as a starter or to trickle down to the bullpen," Friedman said. "We feel like next year at big league camp, it's going to be the most impressive collection of arms this organization has ever had."

Offensively, the Rays got their usual solid effort from resident superstar Carl Crawford, who hit a career-high .315 while disrupting opposing staffs to no end with his speed. Unexpected were the contributions from Carlos Pena and Brendan Harris.

Pena would not have made the team out of Spring Training had Greg Norton not injured his right knee on the second-to-last day of Spring Training. A non-roster invitee, Pena eventually won the starting first-base job and proceeded to hit more home runs than any player in team history.

Meanwhile, Harris came to the Rays in an offseason cash deal and made the team as a bench player. When starting shortstop Ben Zobrist struggled, Harris won the job and thrived, eventually finishing the season as the starting second baseman.

B.J. Upton arrived at Spring Training as a wild card. Everybody recognized his immense athletic skills, but Upton had not delivered at the Major League level. Upton began the season as the starting second baseman and performed like an All-Star in the field and with the bat. When Rocco Baldelli was injured, Upton moved to center field and played like a star.

Delmon Young took over right field and showed fans one of the strongest and most accurate throwing arms in baseball in addition to swinging a clutch bat, making him one of the top rookies in baseball and a cornerstone for the Rays' future. And newcomer Akinori Iwamura started at third base, bringing his exciting style of play from Japan to Tropicana Field.

"Offensively, we've been pleased with how many runs we've been able to score," Friedman said. "That being said, we'd like to be a little more consistent. Like [manager Joe Maddon] has talked about, cutting down on the strikeouts some, and [improving the] pitching, is going to be the big thing for us."

Inconsistent starting performances in the first half put a strain on a struggling bullpen. However, Al Reyes assumed the closer's role and went on to begin the season with 16 consecutive saves.

RAYS SECOND-HALF TOP PERFORMANCES
7/10, AL 5, NL 4 -- Crawford's ASG homer
After he became the first repeat All-Star in Rays history, Carl Crawford goes the extra mile with a solo homer in the sixth inning.
Highlights: 400K
7/13, TB 6, NYY 4 -- Kazmir notches No. 500
The Devil Rays' ace fans seven Yankees in six innings to reach his 500th career strikeout.
Highlights: 400K
8/11, TB 3, TEX 0 -- Jackson's big night
After a roller-coaster season, Edwin Jackson had plenty to smile about after his first career complete game - and shutout.
Highlights: 400K
8/21, BOS 8, TB 6 -- Pena's two-run shot
Carlos Pena continues to make his case for Comeback Player of the Year when the first baseman drills his career-high 28th home run.
Highlights: 400K
8/25, TB 14, OAK 3 -- Kazmir fans 13
Scott Kazmir establishes a new Rays strikeout record by fanning 13 Athletics, as Tampa Bay downs Oakland.
Highlights: 400K

"The bullpen's an area we're going to have to address," Friedman said. "And I feel that right now, we're like a broken record on it -- we've got to do a better job than we've done. Some of it may be accomplished through internal guys, and some through external guys, through free agents or trades. We've got to do a better job of putting together a bullpen that can support our young starters. And that will allow us to take a quantum leap next year."

Maddon liked the way the team progressed, and particularly liked the results in the last two months of the season.

"The general high has pretty much been from Aug. 1 [to the end of the season]," Maddon said. "The consistent way we played the game, obviously the better record. But I just think from that moment on, I think we made a lot of strides, just a better brand of baseball. That body of work from Aug. 1 on. The guys really began to come together."

In the clubhouse, the players are excited about the future.

"I definitely think we're going in the right direction with the players we have," Crawford said. "I'm excited about staying with this lineup and staying with the players a full year together. We've got a nice little group of guys. We've been around each other. We've been around each other a little bit. The chemistry is starting to be really nice. I think that's one of the ingredients we've been missing in the past. I really like the chemistry this group has. We all feed off each other."

Shields said the team just couldn't get the pitching and the offense to come out on the same nights.

"We'd pitch good and wouldn't hit that great, then we'd pitch bad and hit great," Shields said. "In the second half, we were more consistent. I think our starting staff was more consistent the second half; our bullpen has been way more consistent the second half. And I think a lot of teams aren't looking at us as an easy team any more. They have to play us tough."

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