By Jon Heyman
April 01, 2010

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 Joe Maddon said. "We did not like watching the playoffs last year. It's been very easy to motivate the guys.''

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. Sean Rodriguez, who came to Tampa Bay last summer in the Scott Kazmir trade, has been about the best player in Florida, batting .467 batting and slugging .883 slugging to earn a spot on the major league club.

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. Ben Zobrist, an All-Star last season who defines versatility, could play either of those positions, as well. Zobrist may be the only player in the league who's equally adept at as many as five positions (though Seattle's Chone Figgins may be another).

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 Wade Davis is showing signs of relaxing since locking up the No. 5 spot in a very solid rotation that lacks the star power of the rotations of their two main competitors.

The every-day lineup has no such issue. Left fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena were both All-Stars last year and both are free agents after this season, and sometimes that spurs players on to even better things. They'll stay for the full year, provided the Rays do what everyone figures they'll do, which is contend. "If we're playing well, I don't think that has any impact on us,'' Maddon said.

Crawford and third baseman Evan Longoria are two of the best players in the league, and everyone around the Rays figures that B.J. Upton has a chance to join them in that elite category. His younger brother Justin said he hoped his own new $51.25 million contract might "light a fire'' under B.J. While one scout said, "B.J. looks great,'' Rays people believe he can be even better. They still worry about occasional lapses. Legendary coach Don Zimmer recently sat Upton down and Zimmer said he told him, "You don't have it yet. But when you get it, you'll never forget it... if you get it.'' Translation: Don't feel you have it made.

The biggest question, though, isn't about B.J. but J.P., as in J.P. Howell, the lynchpin of the bullpen who's expected to be out until May with shoulder trouble. "Without J.P. we have to figure it out,'' Maddon said. Talented Rafael Soriano anchors the pen, with hard-throwing Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler manning the setup role, but Balfour's spring difficulties (13 hits, five walks in 10 innings) have added to the angst. The Rays are looking for additional relief, but unlike their main competitors they can't easily cover injuries with dollars.

"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.

Six more teams that may surprise...

1. Colorado Rockies

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 Ubaldo Jimenez and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez could be on the cusp of stardom, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (the trendy MVP pick) is already there. Todd Helton and Jason Giambi provide the veteran leadership for one of baseball's younger teams. Most everything is positive. But as with the Rays, the injury to their most important reliever, closer Huston Street, is a concern. He was shut down on Wednesday after halting a throwing session. But if anything, they have more bullpen depth than the Rays.

2. Minnesota Twins

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 Joe Mauer for eight more years at $184 million is a great sign for them, and for baseball. Just like the above two teams, a significant injury to a star reliever is the main concern, and Joe Nathan, who has been a rock for them, is out or the year after Tommy John surgery. But they have added some smart pieces like veterans Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome to a balanced team that usually plays the game the right way under manager Ron Gardenhire. "The Twins have power, defense and speed,'' one AL scout said. "I like them very much.''

3. Atlanta Braves

The scouts are loving the Braves. "Getting Tim Hudson back and healthy is huge. Provided [Derek] Lowe and [Kenshin] Kawakami perform, it's a pretty good rotation,'' according to one AL scout, The bullpen looks solid, and the lineup is improved, with folks expecting big things from rookie right field phenom Jason Heyward. Expectations also are increasing for red-hot Troy Glaus, who looks pretty solid at first base as well as at bat (.413 this spring). One nitpicky question about the Braves is the mix. Their spring clubhouse is split into two rooms, with one for the rookies and those not guaranteed to make the squad, and that may not be the best idea for unity. "I like what I saw,'' said one scout, "but I wonder about the energy.''

4. Arizona Diamondbacks

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.'' Mark Reynolds (.354) also has looked locked in since signing his new deal, and Chris Young (.315), Stephen Drew (.382) and Conor Jackson (.364) all have hit great, as well. Jackson, a good contact hitter, is a key for the all-or-nothing D-backs, and he may wind up sharing leadoff duties with Drew. As with the Rays, Rockies and Twins, a pitching injury is the concern. Former ace Brandon Webb is throwing on flat ground and not expected back until May, and he reportedly saw a doctor on Wednesday for reassurance. For now, the rotation will include journeyman Rodrigo Lopez and possibly reclamation project Kris Benson behind Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson and improved Ian Kennedy (2-1. 2.79 this spring). But once Webb returns, their rotation is among the best in the league.

5. Cincinnati Reds

All the attention has gone to spring phenom Aroldis Chapman -- who's slated to begin the year in the minors despite having superior stuff -- but the Reds have more going for them than most would think. Their rotation is pretty solid (though Opening Day starter Aaron Harang has gotten knocked around this spring, with a 9-plus ERA) and their bullpen, which was third best in the NL, returns practically intact. Homer Bailey (who by all accounts has matured), Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs (.804 slugging this spring) and Joey Votto give the Reds one of the better group of 20-somethings in baseball, and if they can all overcome their own various questions, they could be pretty special.

6. Cleveland Indians

Talented Fausto Carmona (3-0, 0.45) looks like he may have regained his form this spring, and if so, that will be a big boost. If Jake Westbrook (2-0, 4.86) can, too, they might even make a little noise. Justin Masterson could be a star once he shows better control. Grady Sizemore already is a star, and he's healthy again after having two surgeries last summer (one on his elbow, one for an abdominal muscle). Travis Hafner (.279, 14 RBIs) also "looks better'' this spring, according to a scout, as his bat speed appeared to be back and he didn't swing at as many bad pitches. Chris Perez could be a decent replacement as closer for Kerry Wood, who'll miss a month. The Indians did a great job augmenting their prospect list last summer, and should be much better in years to come. But it would still be a surprise if they compete with the White Sox, Twins and Tigers in the AL Central.

The Red Sox and Josh Beckett will complete an extension by early next week that's for four years and believed to be for $68 million, which is a very good deal for Boston. "Great deal for the Red Sox,'' corrected one competing executive.

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.

Mike Lowell is putting himself back into position to be traded with some nifty performances this week. The Red Sox believe that Lowell's value should be about the same as when they originally agreed to trade him to the Rangers at the winter meetings. In that deal, the Rangers agreed to pay $3 million of Lowell's $12 million salary and give Boston a decent hitting prospect in Max Ramirez.

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] Theo Epstein's office is upstairs.''

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 Jarrod Washburn for a deal that's lower than the one they gave Erik Bedard, who got a $1.75 million guarantee and $7.5 million ceiling after an injury-racked season. Perhaps they're counting on the late date to help them lure Washburn back on a cheap deal, but so far Washburn doesn't seem to be anxious to become a great late bargain. The Royals are believed to be offering significantly more money. But it's thought that Washburn would prefer a return to Seattle, where he thrived last year. That's if the dollars can be worked out.

• Aroldis Chapman is expected to be sent out within the next day after a brilliant spring training. Mike Leake, the No. 1 pick last year from Arizona State, plus left-hander Travis Wood remain the candidates to be the Reds' No. 5 starter.

Jordan Norberto may be beating out Clay Zavada for a spot in the Diamondbacks' bullpen.

Jenrry Mejia hit 98 mph on the gun and has the support of most of the Mets' decision makers to win a spot in their bullpen. GM Omar Minaya has said that he wants to go slow with Mejia, but he may become convinced to take him. Bobby Parnell hit 97 and is another candidate for the unsettled bullpen. Kiko Calero, who is throwing 85, won't make the team.

• The Mets are wise to follow doctors' orders and start the season without Jose Reyes, who will be placed on the disabled list retroactively and could be back by April 11.

• Congrats to class act Garret Anderson, who has won a spot with the Dodgers.

Jamie Moyer couldn't decide which he would rather do -- win 300 games or pitch in his 50s. "Interesting question,'' he said. He will pitch at 47 (and with 258 career wins) as the Phillies' No. 5 starter after a brilliant spring game against the Yankees.

Dontrelle Willis is a feel-good story for the Tigers' rotation, though skeptics remain. The Tigers think he has more upside than Nate Robertson, the disappointment who was dealt to the Marlins. Robertson didn't look great, but it's hard to question the Marlins, who almost never miss from a scouting standpoint.

• The Pirates plan to bat their pitcher eighth for now. Interesting idea, but that alone probably won't turn them into a pennant contender.

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