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Future is now for talented Rays squad

Future is now for talented Rays squad

ST. PETERSBURG -- When Eric Hinske went down swinging against Brad Lidge, the strikeout ended the World Series and an incredible run by the upstart Rays.

"We really thought we were going to win, we really did, even though it was kind of a difficult moment, difficult circumstances," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We all figured we were going to figure it out somehow and pull it out somehow, we really did. And then it was over, and it was like, 'You mean there's no game tomorrow? Because we haven't finished our business yet.'"

Despite coming up short in the World Series, the Rays can look toward the 2009 season knowing they have turned the corner toward a bright future.

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The Rays went into the offseason looking to try and improve the club that won the American League East en route to becoming AL champions. Several areas were identified as ones that the team needs to address, including the offense and the bullpen.

Initially the Rays were flexible about whether they would try to sign or trade for a right fielder or DH to bolster the offense. During the Winter Meetings, the Rays addressed the future of right field by acquiring power-hitting corner outfielder Matt Joyce, who likely won't be the starting right fielder at the end of Spring Training, but is earmarked to anchor the position for years to come.

If Joyce does leave Spring Training as the Rays' right fielder that would be a bonus. Meanwhile, the improvement of the offense will now likely come down to signing a free-agent DH and the team still needs additional help in the bullpen.

"You play in October because you have a good bullpen, so you're always looking to make your bullpen better," Maddon said. " ... We're just consistently or constantly trying to upgrade in different areas."

Whether or not the Rays manage to improve their offense or bolster their bullpen, they will report to Spring Training with a lot of familiar faces, which is different than many of the Rays' previous Spring Trainings.

The Rays have defense, speed, and starting pitching, which is an enviable composition to most teams in baseball.

Gold Glove first baseman Carlos Pena leads a group of Rays infielders, each of whom could join Pena as a Gold Glover. Jason Bartlett at shortstop and Akinori Iwamura at second made for a nice double-play combination. And AL Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria shored up the defense further.

With Carl Crawford in left and B.J. Upton in center, the Rays have speed to burn in the outfield. Joyce would fit in at right field based on his speed and strong arm, though there's a good chance Gabe Gross and Fernando Perez would share the duty.

 Season in Preview
A lot can change by Opening Day, but as 2008 becomes 2009, this is who is projected to take the field for the Rays:
  2BAkinori Iwamura
  LFCarl Crawford
  CFB.J. Upton
  1BCarlos Pena
  3BEvan Longoria
  DHWilly Aybar
  RFGabe Gross
  CDinoner Navarro
  SSJason Bartlett
  SPScott Kazmir
  SPJames Shields
  SPMatt Garza
  SPAndy Sonnanstine
  SPDavid Price
  CLTroy Percival
Schedules: Spring | Regular season
Tickets: Spring | Regular season
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The starting pitching includes four from a group who won at least 11 games each in 2008: Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine. Top prospect David Price could earn the final spot in the rotation, but the Rays are not going to hand him a job.

"You know, of course [Price is] in the mix, but the guys that have been there, the incumbents, did a pretty nice job, too," Maddon said. "We'll evaluate that when it comes to Spring Training."

Several questions need to be answered in the bullpen. The biggest of these being the health of Troy Percival, who had a successful first half of 2008 as the team's closer before injuries took their toll in the second half. The veteran had back surgery after the season.

"I talked to Percy before and after the surgery, and he felt really good," Maddon said. "He thought it went really well. Somehow I guess [the surgery] cleaned things out a bit to relieve some of the pressure in the lower half there. He was very optimistic. According to him, I don't know if he would be ready right for the opening of the season, but it could be something relatively close. But he was really optimistic about it. So was the doctor, so it was a good thing."

If Percival is healthy, there's no reason to believe he would not be effective, which could be a real boost to the bullpen. Should Percival not be ready, the Rays will likely go with a bullpen-by-committee situation at the end of the game that would include J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Chad Bradford and Dan Wheeler.

Derek Rodriguez, acquired from the White Sox organization in the Rule 5 Draft, could be a serious candidate to earn a spot in the bullpen.

Maddon does believe that picking up an additional bat is essential given the fact the Rays play in baseball's toughest division.

"I mean, playing in our division, it does matter," Maddon said. "I just think in general, regardless of the division, if we had this particular team, we still would like to pick up another bat. But yeah, you look at the groups we have to play against, and again, you break down our season last year, runs scored, the batting average, et cetera, it wasn't that wonderful, and we still were able to accomplish what we did.

"If we could maintain the integrity of the defense, maintain the integrity of the pitching staff in the bullpen, the starters and relievers, and then obviously the offense that would appear to stay in line with what's going on with the rest of these guys. ... I think we do have to improve the offense somehow to stay up with the rest of the guys."

In St. Petersburg, optimism reigns, and with good reason. The Rays are the defending AL champions, they play an exciting brand of baseball, and they're young. Yes, the future of the Rays looks as bright as the Florida sunshine.

Grading on a curve: On a scale of one to 10, the Rays get a six for pulling off the trade for Joyce, but not yet addressing the departure of Trever Miller.

Arrivals: RF Matt Joyce and RHP Derek Rodriguez.

Departures: LHP Trever Miller and RHP Edwin Jackson.

The Road Ahead: The Rays will continue try and improve their bullpen situation and their offense.

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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