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Re-made Rays still look like a threat in competitive AL East

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays lost their star left fielder, Carl Crawford to the rival Red Sox for $142 million, more than three times their $41 million total payroll. They lost their slugging first baseman, Carlos Pena, to the Cubs for whom he quickly became their team leader, seemingly within moments of joining them.

The Rays also traded talented no-hit pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs and their starting shortstop, Jason Bartlett, to the Padres, the only team with a lower payroll than theirs. And virtually their whole bullpen had to be replaced, including the two most key components, Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit, who are now with American League rivals the Yankees and Tigers, respectively.

Yet, the defending AL East champions -- yes, they did win the division, don't forget -- aren't giving up. The Rays clearly emphasized the future by letting all their many free agents leave, trading Garza and Bartlett and stockpiling draft choices (they have an unprecedented 12 among the first 89 picks in the coming draft), but competitors don't believe they have sacrificed their present. Nor do the Rays look at it that way, either.

"I like their pitching, and they are very athletic. I think they'll be better than people think,'' one competing AL executive said.

The Rays' perpetually upbeat manager, the erudite Joe Maddon, agrees. "All the little things are starting to show up right now. I like where we are,'' Maddon tweeted under his tweet name @RaysJoeMaddon at noon on Friday.

The Rays, as usual, will be very young, except for the duo of ex-Idiots, 37-year-old Johnny Damon and 38-year-old Manny Ramirez, who have made a nice impact since signing simultaneously. Ramirez, in particular, is trying hard to show he's an ex-idiot in more ways than one. He has taken a 90 percent pay cut to $2 million and came to camp with what appears to be greater resolve and improved attitude to go along with hints of an enhanced power stroke. He's joked he's the "Travelin' Man'' after accepting several long bus rides from the sparse enclave where the Rays train. "He's been very good,'' said Maddon.

A critic might note that Ramirez has had more honeymoons than Liz Taylor. But there's always the hope, even following separate struggles last year in Mannywood and Chicago's South Side, that maturity might finally be at hand for Manny, who has yet to complain about his unusually low salary or even the extra spring travel. Ramirez was said to be hoping this winter for either Toronto or Tampa, an odd pairing of teams (he explained the Floridian preference by saying, "My family is in Miami.'')

Folks around the Rays are heaping new praise on the ultra-talented B.J. Upton, who might finally be ready to rise to stardom after two years of surprising sub-.240 hitting and years of questions about his levels of concentration and hustle, even within his own ranks. Maddon has noticed a major change for Upton, the former No. 2 overall pick, saying, "He has a much more mature look, and much more mature thoughts. Players arrive at the moment where they finally get it. I think he's starting to get it.''

Still, some might wonder whether the time is right for the Rays, and that even includes some Rays. "We've got a lot of holes,'' one Rays person said, honestly. Tampa Bay rose from perennial loser to consistent winner (and became one of the greatest surprise World Series qualifiers in 2008) thanks in large measure to its stellar defense. That should be strong again, although young unproven power hitter Dan Johnson could be an issue in that regard at first base. "He can't move, I mean not at all,'' one scout noted.

When folks talk about Tampa's potential troubles, though, they start with that 'pen of unknowns. One competing executive called the relief group "pretty shaky,'' and that is indeed the conventional wisdom with Soriano, Benoit, Grant Balfour and Randy Choate all gone. Rays executive Andrew Friedman, who formed a superb bullpen out of almost nothing last year, when the Rays' seeming hodgepodge of relievers had an American League-best 3.33 ERA and league-low .228 batting average against to go with a best 23-16 won-loss record, is calling around to see if outside help is available. "We continue to have dialogue with other teams,'' he said.

In the meantime, the hope is the bullpen can be a pleasant surprise once again. Maddon isn't complaining. "The whole bullpen has thrown very well," he said recently. "Our bullpen guys are having a great spring. All our bullpen guys are throwing strikes with good stuff. What I'm seeing is the makings of a good bullpen right now.''

Before last year they spent $8 million to sign Soriano, so they were set at closer. But this year is completely a shoestring group, with up-and-down veteran Kyle Farnsworth by far the most accomplished reliever in a group that's hard to name. Joel Peralta (0.00 ERA this spring) is the second most established pitcher in their 'pen. The hope is lefty J.P. Howell could be back in May after missing all last year, but until then the bullpen candidates include Juan Cruz (1.13 spring ERA), Jake McGee (0.90), Cesar Ramos (3.24), Adam Russell and longtime long man Andy Sonnanstine.

At first glance, that doesn't sound like a group that's going to be able to compete in baseball's best division. But Maddon said, hopefully, "At some point guys who are obscure have to become household names.'' That seems to be his motto at times.

Thanks partly to Maddon, one competing executive said it would be a mistake to discount them. "They're going to find a way to be in the mix,'' that exec said. "Their bullpen is pretty scary but Joe mixes and matches so well nobody gets overexposed. People are saying they're going to be out without Garza. But don't go to sleep on them. They're a pretty good club.''

Like no one else, the Rays have taken advantage of some very low finishes by capitalizing with excellent draft choices. Their 12 early picks this year is unprecedented, though there has to be concern whether the low-revenue team that has decreased its payroll from $73 million will find the funds to sign all their new draftees. (Owner Stu Sternberg said they will have the money to do so, though he conceded it may depend to some degree on the "demands'' of the players they pick).

In the meantime, their previous drafts continue to benefit them. Reid Brignac is ready to take over for Bartlett at short. And it won't be long before Desmond Jennings, Crawford's outfield heir apparent, surfaces. But the newest young star might be starter Jeremy Hellickson, who was slowed this spring by a blister, a hamstring and dizziness, pitching only six innings (albeit with a 1.35 ERA). He appears on the verge of stardom. He was 4-0 in a late-season cameo last year, impressing folks most with his varied repertoire and poise. "The guy makes adjustments midgame that 10-year veterans don't make,'' one competing scout said.

The whole team is famous for its on-the-fly adjustments. They are a great one for surprises. Pena himself said no one should overlook them. "I think they'll find a way,'' Pena said a couple weeks ago from Cubs camp. "That's a gold mine for talent, not only in the majors but the minors, one of the best organizations in baseball. And [Friedman] is a magician.''

That is true. But he and co-magic man Maddon will have to show it again this year.

• The Phillies have my sympathy. Ryan Madson or Jose Contreras will close, as Brad Lidge's shoulder pain will cause him to start the year on the disabled list. They will be an interesting team, with perhaps the greatest rotation of alltime (or at least since the 1954 Indians) and many unexpected holes.

• Second base still looks like one of those holes for the Phils. Newly-signed Luis Castillo, through three days with them, has one surprise absence and two 0-for-4s.

• Meanwhile, Rule V pickup Brad Emaus has the Mets' starting second base job, no matter whether they pretend there's still a competition ongoing. Daniel Murphy, who "can really hit,'' will be a utilityman, playing against righties a lot.

• No. 1 draft choice Matt Harvey impressed Mets people by throwing 98 mph in Mets camp.

• It appears the Mets may carry Pedro Beato, Tim Byrdak and Blaine Boyer in the bullpen.

• The Yankees' signing of Kevin Millwood to an incentive-lade minor league deal makes sense, giving them needed depth. Either Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon will be the No. 5 starter, at least at the start. Neither Garcia or Colon is believed willing to accept a minor-league deal. And the Yankees' trade of Sergio Mitre for outfielder Chris Dickerson seems to open the door for both Garcia and Colon to make the team, with one being a reliever (Colon might be better-equipped for that role).

• One hint Austin Romine might make the Yankees as a backup over ballyhooed Jesus Montero was Romine catching A.J. Burnett in a B game recently. Russell Martin, the clear starter, had difficulty one game this spring, and that was one Burnett threw. As for the competition of who will be the Yankees' backup catcher, GM Brian Cashman said, "It depends on who you ask.'' Nobody asked me, but I'd take the defensively strong Romine, and let Montero catch fulltime at Triple-A.

• The biggest question in Camp Sunshine (Dan Shaughnessy's term for the Red Sox) is the lefty relievers. Dennys Reyes seems likely to make it while Hideki Okajima's remaining option may work against him. Andrew Miller is an interesting case but has a big minor league salary so he'd probably accept a job in Triple-A Pawtucket as he continues to work on revamping his motion. New England native Rich Hill is also in the mix. Righthander Alfredo Aceves has had a very nice spring for them, too.

• Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia appears finally ready to be a starting major-league catcher, one scout said. Jason Varitek is set as the backup. But the Red Sox would like a third catching option to play at Pawtucket if they could acquire one in trade.

• Pirates manager Clint Hurdle just sent me this text, quoting the great John Wooden: "Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.'' (I will refrain from a Pirates joke here.)

• Not sure if there's cause-and-effect but after I quoted a scout saying Carlos Quentin looked "terrible,'' he went 10-or-11. He is a key for the White Sox.

• Jake Peavy's original goal of returning by May 1 may still be met even though he doesn't look like he will make Opening Day now.

• Scouts love rookie White Sox third baseman Brent Morel's defense. The team isn't expecting too much offense initially.

• White Sox catching prospect Tyler Flowers is having a resurgence and could be a mid-year callup the way he's playing.

• Cody Ross will miss the start of the season, which may cause Giants people to discuss more seriously a promotion for big-time prospect Brandon Belt. But most believe Belt will still start in the minors. Conceivably, they could play Aubrey Huff in the outfield to replace Ross, with Belt manning first base. Belt is considered one of the best two or three prospects in baseball. (Bryce Harper and Mike Trout would also be on that short list.)

• The Astros are at a catching deficit with Jason Castro out for the year. Robinson Canecl, the ex-Met who was tearing it up in minor league camp, has been called up to the major league camp.

• The Rangers tried but never came close to acquiring a closer, a virtual impossibility on short notice, so Neftali Feliz is the closer. Which no doubt pleases manager Ron Washington. Feliz didn't seem to mind either way, whether Feliz was a closer or reliever. Derek Holland and Matt Harrison were the logical choices for the rotation.

• The Marlins made the right call sending hotshot 21-year-old Matt Dominguez to the minors. Dominguez would be one of the best defensive third baseman in the majors, but he showed he is not ready to consistently hit major league pitching. Owner Jeffrey Loria said, "He'll be up before the end of the year.'' But for now a hole remains. Backup Donnie Murphy and speedy Emilio Bonifacio are their in-house options. The Royals' Pedro Feliz, who's been mentioned in trade, would make sense. Jorge Cantu would also be better than what they currently have.

• Hasn't enough time and money been wasted already on proving Barry Bonds took steroids?

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