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New hope greets Rays this spring

New hope greets Rays this spring

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays manager Joe Maddon could not hide his excitement Thursday morning as pitchers and catchers reported to the Raymond A. Naimoli Baseball Complex for the beginning of Spring Training.

The first workout for pitchers and catchers is Friday at 9:30 a.m. ET.

"Looking around in this room right now, the people involved in this room, all the excitement in the entire organization right now -- it's just a different feeling," Maddon said. "And it's well beyond trying to develop and look at players right now. We're getting to the point where it's more about winning on a daily basis rather than finding out what you have."

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Free-agent signings, trades and numerous changes have fueled the swirling optimism about this year's team as the Rays head into their 11th campaign and begin their final Spring Training in St. Petersburg.

Since the Rays last took the field, they have seen their payroll almost double, moving from $24 million at the beginning of the 2007 season to more than $40 million for the coming season.

The Rays spent some of their money on free agents Troy Percival, Trever Miller and Cliff Floyd. In addition, the team locked up Carlos Pena and James Shields to long-term deals, while avoiding arbitration with Jonny Gomes, Dan Wheeler and Scott Kazmir by signing each to a one-year deal.

The team's biggest offseason move came in November, when it traded right fielder Delmon Young, infielder Brendan Harris and Minor League outfielder Jason Pridie to the Twins for right-hander Matt Garza, shortstop Jason Bartlett and Minor League right-hander Eduardo Morlan.

"I think all the fans need to understand that we're really trying to win around here," Shields said recently. "We're not messing around."

With a lot of new faces in camp, the Rays must blend into a unit. This should not be a difficult task given the level of talent the team has and -- for a change -- the number of positions that are not question marks. Decisions must be made on whether top prospect Evan Longoria is ready to take over at third -- and if he's not, who plays there in the interim -- and the team must decide on the final two spots in the rotation and who will occupy the middle-relief spots. In addition, fans will be able to judge for themselves if Rocco Baldelli is healthy and see what they think of Bartlett at shortstop.

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Baldelli heads to Spring Training as the Rays' biggest question mark. If he's healthy, he should be a productive part of a three-way rotation to fill the slots in right field and at designated hitter, and he can serve as a backup in center and left field. If he is not healthy, it is fair to speculate on whether he will ever be healthy, given his injury history over the past three seasons.

Bartlett committed 26 errors last season, the most for any shortstop in the Major Leagues. But he has a strong arm and good range, which are attributes not seen in a box score. Some of Bartlett's struggles in 2007 can be attributed to neck and shoulder injuries that plagued him throughout the season. Regardless, the Rays are sold on the player who will take over at shortstop this season.

An interesting battle should also take place for the backup catching slot between Shawn Riggans, who is returning from injury, and veterans Mike DiFelice and Josh Paul, who are non-roster invitees.

"We had so many agendas going on in the past in regard to getting to this point," Maddon said. "For the last couple of years, we've talked about finding out what we have. Giving young guys opportunity, and at the proper moment, go out and find the right free agents. That's kind of what happened this past offseason.

"You see Cliff, you see Percy, we just got Trever Miller the other day, the trade, obviously. So the agenda has changed. And the reasons for it have changed. But we're doing things the way we've always talked about, and we feel it's time to move this thing forward."

The Rays' first full-squad workout will be on Feb. 20 at 9:30 a.m., when the organization welcomes 56 players to camp (including 15 non-roster invitees), the fewest players invited to Major League camp in the club's 11-year history. Workouts will be held at the Raymond A. Naimoli Baseball Complex, located at 7901 30th Ave., N. Workouts and parking are free to the public, and a concession stand will be open to purchase refreshments.

Approximately two weeks after opening camp, the team will move its Major League camp to Progress Energy Park, Home of Al Lang Field (180 2nd Ave SE), where the Rays will play 13 home games this spring, beginning March 1 against the Blue Jays. The Rays will finish their home exhibition season with a game against the Reds on March 28 in the team's final Spring Training game at historic Al Lang Field.

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

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