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The Opposition: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

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TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS
2006 Record: 61-101
Manager: Joe Maddon

On SBN: DRays Bay

Incoming: 3B Akinori Iwamura, RHP Jae Kuk Ryu, 3B/SS Brendan Harris, RHP Scott Dohmann
Outgoing: OF Damon Hollins, RHP Tyler Walker, RHP Doug Waechter

The Confidence of Youth
What must it be like as a Devil Rays fan?

There are many of them, of course, and some are about as tried and true as you can be, because to show up to watch the existence of this team has to have been a test. The Devil Rays have only once in their nine-year history finished as high as fourth place, and that was the lone year they won 70 games. They lost 100 for the first time since 2002 last season, and the constant promises that they're about to get better have never come close to materializing. They squandered Aubrey Huff's best seasons, and it seems most of their players that work out -- Randy Winn, for example -- are short-lived.

But there's hope. Again. Same ol' story, same ol' song and dance. The Devil Rays are packed with serious young talent. Carl Crawford is only 25 years old and he legitimately gets better every season. In 2006, he hit .305/.348/.482 with 18 homers, 20 doubles, 16 triples, 77 RBI and 58 steals in 67 attempts. He's been a regular for four seasons, as his skills have simply developed on the major league level.

Rocco Baldelli is also only 25 years old, and though he's played just 92 games since the 2004 season ended (missing all of '05), those 92 games last season showed what Baldelli can do with the bat. He has really good power, slugging .533 with 16 homers in 364 at-bats. Like Crawford, he could use more patience at the plate, but that is simply not the style of either of them. They're free swingers, and they're going to have to hit .300 to be productive, but both are very capable of doing just that.

Scott Kazmir turned 23 in January. He was good in 2005, and even better over his 24 starts in 2006. Kazmir went 10-8 with a 3.24 ERA (144 ERA+) and 163 strikeouts in 144 2/3 innings. Kazmir doesn't just have "ace potential," he's showing already that he can be an ace for a major league team.

Someone might shake it off, and someone might cite his lack of a 200-inning season yet (they will come), and someone might just say it's too early, but I am nothing if not BOLD, my friends, and I declare this to you: Excepting Roy Halladay, Scott Kazmir is the best starting pitcher in the division. That's not a knock on anyone else, it's praise for Kazmir. The kid is seriously good.

Then you have the other youngsters. 22-year old B.J. Upton. 21-year old Delmon Young and 23-year old Elijah Dukes. 23-year old catcher Dioner Navarro. 25-year old Jorge Cantú (who had a miserable sophomore slump in 2006). Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, Mitch Talbot, Jeff Niemann, J.P. Howell -- all born in 1982 or 1983.

The Rays have had no trouble coming up with prospects, and they've had a relatively solid success rate in the major leagues. They just don't have anything else. There are no free agents coming to Tampa Bay, which was the initial allure of giving Tampa/St. Petersburg a team in the first place. "Oh, so many players will want to play here!" Hasn't worked out. But at least they have young players.

We, Too, Can Go to Japan
Third baseman Akinori Iwamura was part of the Japanese squad that won the first-ever World Baseball Classic, and posted himself only to find himself negotiating with the Devil Rays. Things were real touch-and-go for a while there, but ultimately, the Rays found themselves a new third baseman.

The fun in this move is that third base is one of the positions where the Devil Rays actually had a major league player. Ty Wigginton hit .275/.330/.498 with 24 homers in 122 games in 2006, and while that's not great, it gave them a player over there. On the other hand, Wigginton is 29 with a spotty track record and that could have just been a fluky year. And on the first hand, see, Iwamura probably won't be better than that line Wigginton put up.

I could go back-and-forth on that for like an hour. There are no guarantees with a guy like Wigginton or an import like Iwamura. Considering the Rays didn't wind up paying much at all, Iwamura is a sound acquisition on paper.

Who's On First?
If you want to talk about a first-base logjam, take a gander at this beauty. The Devil Rays currently employ veteran Greg Norton (who had a fantastic 98-game season last year), Wes Bankston, Joel Guzmán, Cantú, Wigginton, Hee Seop Choi and Carlos Pena. And, apparently, they're all in the running. Norton, at 35 in July, is probably an outside shot despite his numbers in 2006, because it's still just 300 at-bats and he doesn't have any flexibility. Cantú could move over from second base, or Wigginton from third, and both possibilities are up in the air. Guzmán and Bankston both have outside shots. Choi isn't a good player, let's just all get over Hee Seop Choi. Pena will need to finally put his game all together. (Why am I so nice about Pena and so mean to Choi? They're the same guy.)

Actually, the entire Devil Rays infield is up for grabs this spring. And considering the team in question, that's probably the way it should be.

Having Two Koreans Named Jae is Unusual
Jae Seo is joined by recent trade pickup Jae Kuk Ryu.

I Don't Know What Else to Talk About
I don't mean to sound elitist, because God knows the team I root for has sucked it up for the entirety of Tampa Bay's existence, too, but who cares about the Devil Rays? I think they have some great fans, and I've enjoyed the few times I've talked to a Rays supporter, because they're always more knowledgeable about things like minor leaguers than most fans are, particularly because their team is a minor league club. I'm over here now! But seriously, folks.

I don't know that much about this team because the majority of their potentially good players are still prospects, really, and I will do a lot of stupid shit concerning baseball, but carefully combing through the D-Rays farm system is just not for me. I know they have good talent, but they need to have good baseball players that perform well on a baseball field, all at once. Given their lack of washed-up never-weres on this season's roster, they appear to finally just be cashing in the chips and fielding a team mostly through their own harvest. Iwamura is a solid, inexpensive pickup and a nice PR move. A 5-foot-9, 176-pound third baseman sounds -- wait for it -- foreign in the major leagues, but if anyone is going to take the chance on that working out, why not the Rays? A 6-foot-4 shortstop was foreign, too, meet Cal Ripken.

Part of me roots for this team the majority of the year (meaning when they're not playing us), because who have the Rays ever offended? Who do they hurt? They just want to play baseball, OK? They want to grow up to be a real big league baseball team. And there's that thing with fathers and sons, where the dads can beat the sons in basketball or chess or firebreathing or whatever, for years and years and years, until the day they can't anymore. And someday, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are going to grow up to beat the fathers of the AL East. Ain't gonna be this day.

Why Tampa Bay Won't Win
You do not need for me to explain this. Everyone in the AL East reloaded this offseason, even our O's. The Rays will need a lot of help and a lot of good play to escape the cellar in 2007. They have a ton of future on this club, but this is the present.