Rays enter season in uncharted waters

Rays enter season in uncharted waters

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Rays find themselves in uncharted waters heading into the 2012 season: They are favorites.

The team has always been cast as an underdog. Now it is like a fine wine that has just begun to mature.

Tampa Bay earned a spot in the playoffs in the dying moments of the 2011 regular season. According to manager Joe Maddon, the team has improved from that odds-defying bunch.

"I think part of the improvement is based on guys having one more year under their belt," Maddon said. "I want to believe that's going to help a lot. We've been playing with a lot of young veterans over the last couple of years. Now, they have another year of experience and playoff experience. So I think right away, that helps also."

Tampa Bay's nucleus remains young, but turnover did take place over the offseason, meaning new faces will dot this year's roster. Among those are free agent Luke Scott, who was signed to be the team's DH, and Carlos Pena, who returns as the team's first baseman after a year spent with the Cubs.

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"We've lost some really good players, and I don't think that's talked about enough, either," Maddon said. "The contributions of Casey [Kotchman] and Johnny [Damon] last year were very vital, but what we did this year to add a little more power may provide, or promote, more runs as we move through this league. So I think we've improved in the area of power, and then possibly in the run-production category."

Evan Longoria will again play third and lead the offense that will feature center fielder B.J. Upton, once he returns from the disabled list, and Ben Zobrist, who had 72 extra-base hits in 2011.

Paramount for any player to play for the Rays is an ability to field their position. Once again the team should be an above-average defensive team.

"I don't see anything too different on defense," Maddon said. "It's pretty much status quo."

Only the catching will have a different look with veteran Jose Molina anchoring the position and Jose Lobaton serving as the backup, though the latter is earmarked to catch plenty of games.

Superlative defense and catching will augment the starting pitching, which again will be the foundation of the team.

James Shields will be the team's Opening Day starter and the rotation that will follow the veteran right-hander will be David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Jeff Niemann.

Moore is the new kid. At 22, he has been anointed by MLB.com as the top prospect in baseball. And he had to be pretty good just to earn a spot in the rotation.

"Obviously, it's the first time I've been in the big leagues at the start of the season and, holy cow, every night we're going to have somebody coming at them and somebody really good, too," Moore said. "It's not just a guy taking the mound for six or seven innings ... It's going to be really exciting."

Price noted that the high expectations on this year's team have not changed anything.

"We believe in ourselves every year, this is no different for us," Price said. "Our mindset hasn't changed."

The quality of the Rays' starting staff bodes well for their bullpen. By allowing the relievers to remain rested while throwing fewer innings, it also empowers Maddon to tinker with the matchups that are statistically best, which puts a reliever in a position to succeed.

Kyle Farnsworth will again serve as the closer, with Joel Peralta entrenched as the setup man. Both should receive plenty of help from J.P. Howell, Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Burke Badenhop and former starter Wade Davis, who will pitch out of the bullpen this season.

"I do believe the bullpen is thicker," Maddon said.

While the Rays made some nice additions, Maddon believes that one of the team's strengths will be the experience the group gained last season.

"How we came back, how we won, the momentum that we did build," Maddon said. "To me, we've really got to draw on that to a point where it's going to make a difference for us this year.

"I just think it's more of an internal thing. How we feel about ourselves is what we need to really understand and deal with and that's going to make us a better team this year."

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