FT. MYERS, Fla. -- The Rays aren't just some tiny-market upstart anymore. They are, by all accounts, ready to again compete with the Yankees and Red Sox in what is almost inarguably baseball's best division. Tampa Bay's payroll is up to $65 million, and its talent is up, as well. The praise is almost universal among scouts and everyone else who saw the Rays' winning act during spring training, where they've gone an MLB-best 19-7 entering Thursday's games.
"Our guys are on a mission.'' Rays manager
Maddon, the master motivator who coaxed the Rays to a stunning 97 wins and an American League pennant two years ago, is not alone in that assessment. The Rays, who were disappointed to win 84 last year and finish third in the AL East, never seem to rest. "They have a lot of guys, and they keep coming at you,'' is the way one scout put it.
Indeed, the Rays have overwhelmed teams on occasion. And it's not just the established young stars.
This team isn't only about youth and talent, it's about versatility, and it hasn't been determined yet whether Rodriguez will play second base or right field.
This is still a team on the rise, and unlike with the Yankees and Red Sox, there are no significant questions about creeping age. It's prime time for these Rays, and this season holds the potential to be the best time for them, too. Some believe that top prospect
The every-day lineup has no such issue. Left fielder
Crawford and third baseman
The biggest question, though, isn't about B.J. but J.P., as in
"It's going to be a dogfight between the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. They are all about equal,'' one executive from an AL East team said. "The one difference is the depth of the Yankees and Red Sox. If they don't have it, they can go out and buy it.'''
Nonetheless, the Rays have been the most impressive team in Florida. They may just steal a playoff spot.
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They are the chic pick in the NL West, and understandably so. They have depth, youth and talent, much like the Rays. "Everyone loves them out here,'' one Arizona-based scout said. Ace
They are clearly taking their first year in Target Field seriously, having run up their payroll to close to $100 million. Their ability to keep
The scouts are loving the Braves. "Getting
Nobody should be fooled by great offensive stats in Arizona, but in the words of one Cactus observer, Justin Upton (.367, five homers) has been "a monster.''
All the attention has gone to spring phenom
The Red Sox and
The contract has yet to be finalized, and if you look through the fine print of the CBA, you can probably find the reason. It is very likely that the finishing touches are being saved for after the start of the season so Beckett's extension won't count against Boston's competitive balance tax. Since the number is said to be in place at $68 million, that's probably the best explanation for why nothing has been signed or announced just yet.
When Beckett is asked about the negotiations, he gives as calm a "no comment'' as you're going to find, and did so again on Monday night after a nice tuneup. There's probably a very good reason for his placidity, and it's that he has nothing to worry about.
If baseball's tax situation is indeed the reason for the delay, look for an announcement either Monday or Tuesday of next week. Beckett is starting the opener on Sunday night against the Yankees, so he's bound to be a big part of the news the first week of the season.
That was before Lowell failed Texas' physical. But he has looked very good on the field in recent days -- a better test. The Rangers reportedly remain interested in Lowell, 36, who is showing that he's still an excellent hitter and adept on the infield (though with limited range, like last year). When Lowell was asked where he expects to be playing, he said, "[Red Sox GM]
Lowell also said, "I try not to dwell on things I have no control over. If they tell me 'You're going to Boston,' I'll go to Boston. If they tell me I'm going somewhere else, I'll go there.''
Lowell said he feels better than a year ago. "I'm better positioned to have a better year,'' he said. Though he remains uncertain where he'll be, and what position he'll be playing. He says first base, which he has never played in a major league game, is "not a complicated position by any means.'' And about third base, where he has played all but eight of his career games in the field, he said, simply, "I'm not opposed.''
He probably wouldn't be opposed to a deal that bring more playing time. But as he said, he's not dwelling on it.
• The Mariners, who are concerned about their starting pitching depth, are trying to bring back
• Aroldis Chapman is expected to be sent out within the next day after a brilliant spring training.
• The Mets are wise to follow doctors' orders and start the season without
• Congrats to class act
• The Pirates plan to bat their pitcher eighth for now. Interesting idea, but that alone probably won't turn them into a pennant contender.