When you’ve finished nine of the ten seasons in your franchise’s history in last place of your division and you’ve only cracked the 70 win mark once, maybe a change of name serves to help wipe that slate clean. At least the Tampa Bay Rays and their fans would like to think so.
The Devil Rays were always burdened with a complete and utter lack of pitching and raw, but not developed, talent at the plate. The newly named Rays hope that 2008 signifies a step in a new direction. With a developing ace in Scott Kazmir, a solid two in James Shields, and youth at the tail in Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, and Andy Sonnanstine, the Rays staff should provide support for a surprisingly tough lineup.
These aren’t your father’s Rays.
Fire Brand Quote of the Team: “Will score a bunch of runs. Can they stop giving up so many?” (Zach Hayes)
Statistics code: AVG/OBP/SLG for hitters. W-L, ERA, WHIP for starters. ERA, WHIP, IP for relievers.
C: Dioner Navarro (2007 stats: .227/.286/.356)
Once a prospect in the Yankees organization and thought maybe to be the heir to the throne of Posada in New York, Navarro has bounced around a bit and never lived up to that potential. Navarro is serviceable behind the plate, but won’t scare anyone. That said, if he can find some of his past potential and unlock it, he may surprise a little. His second half of 2007 gives the Rays some reason for hope where his OPS was .815 after the break (vs. .492 prior). It’s not like there’s anyone of note behind him so the Rays will sink or swim with Navarro behind the plate.
1B: Carlos Pena (2007 stats: .282/.411/.627)
Talk about bouncing around, Carlos Pena is only one year removed from not being able to find a job. Now he holds the single season franchise record in home runs (46) and RBI (121), holds the only 1.000 plus OPS season by a Ray (1.038), and is the only real power threat in the Rays lineup. For as much as the fate of the franchise lies on the left arm of Scott Kazmir, proving that 2007 wasn’t a flash in the pan for Pena is likely going to mean the difference in this team finally getting over the 70 win barrier and approaching mediocrity.
2B: Akinori Iwamura (.285/.359/.411)
Akinori Iwamura will make the move from 3B to 2B this season to make room for the youngsters knocking at the hot corner’s door. Iwamura’s first season in the Major League’s after a successful career in Japan turned out much better than many of his countrymen on their first attempts to move across the Pacific. Iwamura will never be Ichiro or even Hideki Matsui, but he established last season that he’s a legitimate Major League hitter. Having his production from second base creates much more value in this lineup than looking for power from him from third base.
SS: Jason Bartlett (2007 stats: .265/.339/.361)
A plus defensive player, Bartlett takes over the SS position for the Rays this year. While he offers more speed and better defense than Brendan Harris did at that position last year, he won’t put up the offensive numbers that Harris put together (which wasn’t a whole lot to begin with). Bartlett will be an upgrade of overall talent at the position and should be manning the position for the Rays for a few years.
3B: Evan Longoria (2007 stats: rookie) | Willy Aybar (2007 stats: rookie) | Eric Hinske (2007 stats: .204/.317/.398)

The Rays moved Akinori Iwamura off the hot corner to make room for hot prospect Evan Longoria. But in true “Devil” Ray style, they may start the season with Longoria, who has impressed this spring, in Triple-A in favor of another rookie Willy Aybar or former Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jay Eric Hinske. Regardless of who starts the year at third, Longoria will get most of the time there as the year progresses. Expectations are that Longoria is a solid bet to hit 20+ home runs in his first season at the Major League level.
LF: Carl Crawford (2007 stats: .315/.355/.466)
What to make of Carl Crawford? Is he a top flight outfielder? He has all the tools, but is seemingly regressing a little, or at least not progressing at the rates that we all expected out of him. Coming into this season, Crawford has even had the dreaded term “over-rated” penned near his name at times. From my perspective, I wouldn’t go that far, but we are at a precipice of Crawford’s career. Will he take that next step and combine his power and speed, turning into the MVP candidate that we all thought was in him or will he continue to be “just another all-star”?
Now for the good news for Rays fans. Crawford’s “nondescript” 2007 still littered the single season Tampa Bay Rays franchise top ten lists. He not only hit .315, the highest average of any Ray in history, but stole 50 plus bases for the fourth time in the past five years.
CF: B.J. Upton (2007 stats: .300/.386/.508)
B.J. Upton was burdened with expectation since he was a teenager. In 2007 at 23 years old, Upton finally lived up it with a breakout offensive season. Having fully made the transition from 2B to CF, Upton should continue to improve at the plate. Having joined the .300-20-20 club last season despite having missed a month of the year due to injury, Upton and Carl Crawford make a dynamic offensive duo at the top of a lineup. One key to Upton’s development will be a maturation at the plate and a keener understanding of the strike zone. Upton struck out 154 times last season.
RF: Johnny Gomes (2007 stats: .244/.322/.460) | Cliff Floyd (2007 stats: .284/.373/.422) | Eric Hinske (2007 stats: .204/.317.398)
This should have been where we write a glowing prediction of the resurrection of the face of the Rays franchise Rocco Baldelli. Instead, continued chronic health problems have kept him off the field to start the 2008 season and this time his career hangs in the balance.
So now the right field position falls in the lap of a pair of DH’s and a utility IF/OF. While Johnny Gomes and Cliff Floyd are capable of offensive output, neither are reliable over the long haul due to predisposition for long slumps or missed time due to injury. Hinske can be a serviceable stopgap solution in RF and a back up at third, but whether he can regain a starting position in the major’s is still a question up for grabs. The good news for the Rays is that they have a triumvirate of veteran players to fight for or share playing time and their collective stats shouldn’t be much worse than the Major League average right fielder.
DH: Johnny Gomes (2007 stats: .244/.322/.460) | Cliff Floyd (2007 stats: .284/.373/.422)
see above minus Hinske
SP: Scott Kazmir (2007 stats: 13-9, 3.48, 1.38) | James Shields (2007 stats: 12-8, 3.85, 1.11) | Matt Garza (2007 stats:5-7, 3.69, 1.54) | Edwin Jackson (2007 stats: 5-15, 5.76, 1.76) | Andy Sonnanstine (2007 stats: 6-10, 5.85, 1.35)

We’ve said it time and time again here, but the real fate of this team and reason for optimism is in the progression of their young pitching staff from extreme liability to a weapon. While it looks like Scott Kazmir will start the season on the disabled list, the Rays’ starters should still be a strength to rely on this season. Last year, the back half of the rotation was so abysmal that even sub-3.00 ERAs from their one/two combo of Kazmir and Shields couldn’t keep the collective ERA of their starters in 2007 below 5.00 (5.20) better only than Texas in the American League. While Edwin Jackson still remains from that miserable collection, he’s got “upside”. What really stems the tide is the addition of Matt Garza from the Twins, the centerpiece of the package returned for Delmon Young, at the #3 spot. The Rays staff should be significantly better this season.
RP: Al Reyes (2007 stats: 4.90, 1.15, 60.2) | Dan Wheeler (2007 stats: 5.30, 1.30, 74.2) | Gary Glover (2007 stats: 4.89, 1.47, 77.1) | Scott Dohmann (2007 stats: 3.31, 1.44, 32.2) | Grant Balfour (2007 stats: 7.66, 2.03, 24.2) | J.P. Howell (2007 stats: 7.59, 1.76, 51.0) | Trevor Miller (2007 stats: 4.86, 1.47, 46.1)
Tampa Bay’s bullpen was by far and away the worst bullpen in baseball in 2007 with a collective ERA of an astounding 6.16 converting only 57% (24 of 45) of their save opportunities and allowing a .875 OPS against. While most of the bullpen remains unimproved, the signing of Troy Percival to anchor the closer role at least pushes the rest of their relievers back one spot allowing former closer Al Reyes to be the primary set up man. With an improved starting rotation, the Rays shouldn’t have to abuse their long relievers as much this season, throwing them to the wolves. This will, however, continue to be the biggest weakness on the Rays in 2008.
CP: Troy Percival (2007 stats: 1.80, 0.85, 0 SV)
Percival’s impact on the bullpen will go beyond improving their save rate (although he didn’t have a save last season in his comeback attempt with the Cardinals). Percival’s presence deepens the rest of the pen as well. But how much does he have left in the tank? Percival looked good as a part of the Cardinals’ bullpen last year, but he isn’t the closer that dominated as a member of the Angels as recently as 2004. But hey, anything is an improvement for the Rays bullpen and if Todd Jones can do it, so can Troy Percival.
MGR: Joe Maddon

Joe Maddon is old school baseball. Prior to his first managerial role with the Rays, Maddon spent 31 years with the Angels, his last 10 as the bench coach to Mike Scioscia. Despite his long tenured time in baseball, Maddon is the ultimate optimist and carries more than a trace of “new baseball philosophy” with him. Maddon has lead the Rays to a 127-197 record in his first two seasons at the helm. Continued improvement from the Rays this year is critical for Maddon if he wants to stay at the helm and see this team through to the plus .500 side of the ledger.
GM: Andrew Friedman

Andrew Friedman’s official title is Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and he is part of the new blood regime change in front offices around baseball. A college baseball player at Tulane before injury derailed any career aspirations playing the game, Friedman’s pedigree is in the world of finance and investments. Can he use portfolio theory to turn around a franchise?
Fire Brand’s Favorite Move: Shipping Delmon Young for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett leverages a seemingly abundant source of young hitting prospects to bring in a young arm that will not only slide immediately into the #3 spot in the rotation, but will anchor the rotation with Kazmir and Shields for years to come. Young is an incredible talent and he’ll be an above average Major League hitter for the Twins. But even if he becomes great, it was time for the Rays to pull the trigger on a deal to bring pitching to the Trop.
Fire Brand’s Least Favorite Move: How many times can you be burned by relying on the same oft-injured player to be healthy? I would have loved to have seen Rocco Baldelli succeed. I am a huge fan of Baldelli. But by relying on Baldelli, the Rays now have a Johnny Gomes/Cliff Floyd hole in right field.
My other least favorite move might be more controversial; Not signing Barry Bonds. The Rays have a need to stand out, to draw attendance to the Trop, and a bat like Bonds paired with Carlos Pena suddenly changes the entire shape of the Rays lineup. But there’s still time and Barry’s still unemployed (for now).
Fire Brand’s Prediction: I’ll go out on a limb here. I expect the Tampa Bay Rays to win more games this season than any other season in the club’s history. I think 75-80 wins is a realistic goal for this team. Unfortunately, this doesn’t add up to much more than keeping them out of the cellar in the American League East. But hey, they’ve got to start somewhere.