4 Tampa Bay Rays

"THEY'LL WIN (GULP) MORE THAN 70 GAMES."
March 30, 2008

EVEN AS early aseight in the morning, when most of the young Rays hung sleepy-eyed over theirbreakfast, there was no mistaking the presence of Troy Percival, hired by TampaBay to be its closer, advice guru and clubhouse gadfly. "You guys have toget on the bus and get out of here," barked the 38-year-old Percival, whowas not scheduled for either split-squad road game that day in spring training."You're taking up all my air in here."

Good morning, Rays,this is your wake-up call. It is the season Tampa Bay will win (gulp) more than70 games for the first time in franchise history. Percival was brought innot only to help patch what was the worst major league bullpen in the past halfcentury (6.16 ERA), but also to help the Rays deal with these newfangledexpectations. Lest any of the young players get carried away with their pressclippings, Percival shrink-wrapped an enormous photo of himself on the hood ofthe BMW belonging to top pitching prospect David Price (and convinced him itcouldn't be removed for days). After reading a story comparing young startingpitchers Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza with Tom Glavine, JohnSmoltz and Steve Avery, Percival worked out the next day in a jersey with thenames of all six pitchers in capital letters on the back.

All kidding aside,Kazmir, Shields and Garza are indeed the foundation of Tampa Bay's climb toward.500 and beyond--just as Glavine, Smoltz and Avery launched a winning era forAtlanta in the early 1990s. The Rays trio accounted for three of the six bestERAs in the AL last year among the 22 pitchers who were 25-and-under and madeat least 15 starts. Kazmir (3.48) was also the league strikeoutchampion, Shields (3.85) was the youngest starter in 40 years to recordfive times as many strikeouts as walks, and Garza (3.69) was so good forMinnesota that the Rays traded hard-hitting outfielder Delmon Young to get himin November.

"At first I wasreally surprised to be traded because I thought, Wait a minute, how can theytrade me? I'm still cheap,'' says Garza. "But after five minutes talking to[Tampa Bay executive VP of operations] Andrew Friedman, I was excited. There'sa quiet confidence building here."

The Rays were agood team last season whenever they started Kazmir or Shields (35-30) anddownright dreadful when they gave the ball to anybody else (31-66). So a fullseason from Garza, a fierce competitor whom the Twins did not call up untilJune 28, is a big boost. "I was frustrated in Triple A, and I neverplan on going back again," he says. "I think the days when peoplethought of Tampa Bay as the doormat of the league are over. Guys would make aname here and get out. But now I can see guys will make a name and want tostay."

Of course Tampa Baymust hope Kazmir's tender left elbow, which will cost him at least his firsttwo starts, doesn't become a bigger issue. The Rays, though, do have more youngarms on the way, including Price, the No. 1 pick of the 2007 draft who maybe in the bigs by midsummer; 6' 9"righty Jeff Niemann; plus righty WadeDavis and lefty Jacob McGee, both of whom will begin the year inDouble A.

And that pitchingstaff won't lack run support. Centerfielder B.J. Upton, who hit .300 as a22-year-old in '07, is at last locked into a position, third baseman EvanLongoria should contend for AL Rookie of the Year honors and Carlos Peñaprovides big-time power at the other infield corner. Almost forgotten in thewake of Peña's 46 homers in '07 was that the Rays cut him in springtraining. "Greg Norton got hurt and we had to call Peña quickly to ask himback," says senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker. "Otherwise he wouldhave been free to go anywhere."

And so, it wouldappear, the Rays finally found some luck--and now they have a plan. It startswith giving the ball to Kazmir, Shields and Garza as often as possible, and tothe dynamic Price when he's ready. If that's the case, Tampa Bay could get usedto winning.

CONSIDER THIS amodest proposal ...

With Rocco Baldellisidelined indefinitely because of extreme fatigue, the Rays should considertrading for Cubs rightfielder Matt Murton, who is buried behind KosukeFukudome, the Japanese import whom Chicago signed during the off-season. The26-year-old Murton is no star in the making, but he knows how to work a count(.365 career on-base percentage) and has a little power. PECOTA projects thathe would hit .288 with a .354 OBP in Tampa, figures that would make for a solidnumber 2 hitter behind Carl Crawford. Murton is also a better defensiveplayer than current rightfielder Jonny Gomes (left), who could shareat bats in the DH role with Cliff Floyd. The Cubs are bereft of the youngpitching prospects with which the Rays are overflowing. A deal makes sense forboth sides.

THE NUMBERS

LIE

.300

Batting average of centerfielder B.J. Upton last season despite striking out154 times in 474 at bats, or roughly one whiff every three trips. The23-year-old Upton benefited from his unusually high .399 average on balls heput into play. (League averages are typically closer to .300.) The young starwill be hard-pressed to hit .300 again unless he cuts down on thosestrikeouts.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

THE LINEUP

PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2007 STATISTICS

MANAGER JOE MADDONTHIRD SEASON WITH TAMPA BAY

AKINORI IWAMURA 2B
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 188 .285 7 34 12
CARL CRAWFORD LF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 22 .315 11 80 50
CARLOS PEÑA   1B
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 24 .282 46 121 1
B.J. UPTON   CF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 42 .300 24 82 22
CLIFF FLOYD (New acquisition)   DH
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 145 .284 9 45 0
JONNY GOMES   RF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 245 .244 17 49 12
WILLY AYBAR† (New acquisition)   3B
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 261 .280 4 30 1
DIONER NAVARRO C
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 202 .227 9 44 3
JASON BARTLETT (New acquisition) SS
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 194 .265 5 43 23
BENCH
ERIC HINSKE (New acquisition)   IF-OF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 238 .204 6 21 3
BEN ZOBRIST   IF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 323 .155 1 9 2
ROTATION PITCHER PVR W L K/9 WHIP ERA
LH Scott Kazmir 34 13 9 10.4 1.38 3.48
RH James Shields 52 12 8 7.7 1.11 3.85
RH Matt Garza (New acquisition) 83 5 7 7.3 1.54 3.69
RH Edwin Jackson 240 5 15 7.2 1.76 5.76
RH Jason Hammel 252 3 5 6.8 1.65 6.14
BULLPEN PITCHER PVR W SV K/9 WHIP ERA
RH Troy Percival (New acquisition) 96 3 0 8.1 0.85 1.80
RH Al Reyes 131 2 26 10.4 1.15 4.90
LH Trever Miller (New acquisition) 270 0 1 8.9 1.47 4.86


New acquisition

(R) Rookie

B-T:Bats-throws

*Triple A stats†2006 stats

WHIP: Walks plushits per inning pitched

PVR: Player ValueRanking (explanation on page 62)

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SI VAULT

EXCERPTED FROM SI

MARCH 19, 2007

MORE THAN Elijah Dukes or Delmon Young, second basemanB.J. Upton is feeling the pressure to live up to his hype because the DevilRays have more premier infield talent in the pipeline. Power-hitting thirdbaseman Evan Longoria isn't far away, and shortstop Reid Brignac won the MVPaward in the California League. But enough on how good the baby Rays could bedown the road. "Now's the time to see what some of these kids can do in afull season." --Albert Chen

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Free access to all Rays stories and photographs fromthe SI archive, plus video clips.

PHOTOAL TIELEMANSGOING TO THE MATT
The Rays were 31-66 last season when their top two pitchers didn't start; withGarza, the new No. 3, that'll change.
TWO PHOTOSJOHN IACONO(GOMES); GARY BOGDON (COVER)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)