That evolution continued Wednesday night, when the club acquired starter Matt Garza from the Twins in a six-player trade, sending prized outfielder Delmon Young to Minnesota. The Rays also received shortstop Jason Bartlett and Minor League reliever Eduardo Morlan from the Twins, in exchange for Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie.
"This trade is about the present, and not the future," vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "We're a better ballclub with this trade."
And certainly a better rotation. Garza, 24, was among a crowded group of Twins pitching prospects jockeying for playing time over the past two seasons. He struggled during his initial Major League splash in 2006, and didn't break camp with the Twins this spring. But a strong showing on the farm significantly bumped his stock, and in July he became a rotation fixture in Minnesota, finishing the year with a 3.69 ERA in 16 games.
The Twins drafted Garza in the first round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, and he was an instant success, becoming the fourth-fastest player to reach the Majors in team history.
"He's got a chance, certainly, to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher," Friedman said of Garza. "He's a guy that we project to get a lot better pretty quickly."
Garza should fit behind Scott Kazmir and James Shields in Tampa Bay's rotation, forming a trio of Major League-tested starters. The oldest of them, Shields, is just 26.
"The Devil Rays are taking steps in the right direction to get better," Garza said. "I'm not saying I'll be a big part, but I'm saying I'm another piece of that puzzle they are looking to put together."
While the deal instantly improves the Rays' rotation, it comes at a significant cost. Young, 22, was the overall No. 1 pick in the 2003 Draft, and this past year became a mainstay in Tampa Bay's outfield. He hit .288 in his first full season, cementing himself in the middle of the team's lineup.
Yet with Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and B.J. Upton all capable of starting -- and flourishing -- in the outfield next season, the Rays still boast one of the top young groups in the league. Consider also backups Jonny Gomes and Elijah Dukes, and there was more than enough depth to make a move.
"When you acquire players that you target, obviously in return you've got to give up a lot," Friedman said. "We feel like we did that with all three guys we gave up. But I feel like this is a situation in a trade that really has a good chance to help both teams."
It helps the Rays not only by forming the foundation of a dominant rotation, but by plugging a hole at shortstop, a position in flux. Harris played 87 games there for the Rays this season, though he was only part of a carousel of infielders to man the position.
In Bartlett, 28, the Rays should find stability up the middle. There are questions about Bartlett's defense after he made 26 errors last year -- and questions about his offense, after he hit only .265 with limited power -- but the Rays believe he can provide some answers. Friedman was so enamored with him that he was willing to hand Bartlett the keys to the starting shortstop position just moments after acquiring him.
"We feel like he's an above-average shortstop, and we feel like he's going to go a long way toward strengthening our overall defense," Friedman said.
And at the very least, Friedman noted, Bartlett could be a perfect plug at shortstop until blue-chip prospect Reid Brignac breaks his way into the Majors.
"I didn't have that great of a year defensively," Bartlett said, acknowledging that neck and shoulder issues bothered him at times. "I feel personally, I'm a lot better than that."
The Rays hope the last piece of their trade, Morlan, can also reach the Majors soon. Morlan spent almost the entire season in Class A Fort Myers, where he finished with a 3.15 ERA and 18 saves, striking out 92 and walking only 17. That earned him a late promotion to Double-A New Britain, where he allowed one run in four innings.
"Morlan, we feel like, is one of the best young bullpen prospects out there," Friedman said. "We've been very focused on trying to fill out our bullpen with veteran guys, and also some young guys."
While Young was unquestionably the biggest piece the Rays traded away, Harris and Pridie will leave holes of their own. Harris enjoyed a breakout season bouncing between both middle-infield positions, finishing with a .286 average and 12 home runs. And Pridie showed flashes of becoming another strong outfielder in a system full of them, batting a combined .297 in time split between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham.
The deal puts the Rays in a situation unique to the franchise -- they now have a surplus of pitching. Friedman essentially transferred his outfield depth to the mound, and in doing so, he put his team in an enviable position. The Rays still have one of the most solid outfield cores in the game, and with Garza, they now have one baseball's most promising rotations, too.
The young right-hander sports four pitches, including an improved changeup that Friedman believes was the key to his recent progress. And so Garza -- like Kazmir, like Shields -- appears to be heading in the right direction."
"He had his struggles, but everybody does," Bartlett said. "I don't know how many times a guy came to second base and said, 'This guy has great stuff.'"
That's why Bartlett said he's pleased to follow his teammate to Tampa, and why the Rays are pleased to have them both. The trade is just a start. While Bartlett may be the only major piece the Rays add to their lineup before Opening Day, Friedman acknowledged that his pitching staff is far from set. The team still needs bullpen help, to be sure, and wouldn't oppose further strengthening the rotation should opportunity knock again.
"It's something we're always going to be looking for," Friedman said. "You can never have too much."
But at least now, perhaps, the Rays have enough. The addition of Garza not only adds one more power arm to the rotation, but it creates an even stiffer competition at the back end. Edwin Jackson, Andy Sonnanstine and Jason Hammel will battle a slew of even younger pitchers for the final two slots, with the extra arms heading to -- and presumably strengthening -- the bullpen.
It may not be enough to upend the Yankees or Red Sox just yet, but it's a start. And a pretty good one, at that.
"I'm excited to be going to a team like that," Garza said. "They are extremely young. It's not like you are supposed to produce right now -- it's a team that will make mistakes. When this team starts clicking, it will be like 'Wow, they are really coming together.' Seems like that group will have a lot more fun."
Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.