PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida—The Rays are going to win their third American League East title in four years, even though conventional wisdom says they look like no better than a third-place team, behind the Red Sox and Yankees.

How do we know? Because Joe Maddon said so, even if the Rays' manager did so in a subtle way.

When asked how he will manage playing time for 38-year-old designated hitter Manny Ramirez and 37-year-old left fielder Johnny Damon this season, Maddon explained his plan to keep from overusing them, then concluded: "That way, they will be fresh and ready to play as much as we'll need them to in the postseason."

The logical follow-up question was if Maddon was sure the Rays were going to be in the postseason. His answer: "We're going to win the American League East."

Maddon has been relentlessly positive since taking over for Lou Piniella prior to the 2006 season. That has served him well in transforming a franchise from the laughingstock of baseball into one of its most admired in the span of just five years. In 2008, the Rays went to the World Series after having lost at least 91 games in each of their first 10 years of existence.

Maddon will need the positivity this season. If the Rays were a college football team, people would be saying they were hit hard by graduation losses. While it would be too alarmist to say the Rays are in rebuilding mode, there is no doubt that they have a lot of restructuring to do, as they are cutting the payroll from $71 million to $50 million this season.

Left fielder Carl Crawford led an exodus of free agents that included first baseman Carlos Pena, designated hitter Willy Aybar, closer Rafael Soriano, and fellow relievers Lance Cormier, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate, and Grant Balfour. Matt Garza, one of the Rays' top starting pitchers, and shortstop Jason Bartlett were traded. In all, 11 key players are gone from a team that went 96-66 and won the AL East by one game over the Yankees before losing to the Rangers in the American League Division Series.

Yet Maddon is not deterred. After all, he is already planning for October in spring training.

"We've got a great core of super-talented players," Maddon said. "They're pretty intelligent guys. They know how to play the game and get the most out of their abilities. The guys who are still here understand what we're all about. The new players we acquired over the winter, we've had a lot of good conversation with them and let them know the standard we have set in our organization, and they are all very enthusiastic about being Rays."

The Rays are truly a wild card this season. On the one hand, it is easy to see them finishing last in an ultra-talented division. On the other hand, they have two of baseball's brightest young stars in third baseman Evan Longoria and left-hander David Price, who fronts a solid rotation with upside that includes James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and rookie Jeremy Hellickson.

The Rays, though, have to completely rebuild their bullpen beyond long man Andy Sonnanstine. They will also count on first baseman Dan Johnson, second baseman Sean Rodriguez, and shortstop Reid Brignac to show they can be everyday players in the major leagues for the first time.

No one knows for sure what to expect from Ramirez and Damon at this stage of their careers. PECOTA projects Ramirez to hit 16 home runs with a .300 TAv and 2.4 WARP and Damon to have 12 homers, 16 stolen bases, a .275 TAv and 1.5 WARP.

"I think a lot of what we are able to get from Manny and Johnny will be predicated by how we use them," Maddon said. "We're going to have to watch them, give them days off as necessary to try to keep their legs fresh. If we are able to manage that correctly then I believe both will have good seasons because I still see a lot of life left in them."

Just like Maddon sees a lot of life left in the Rays despite the off-season roster turnover.

"We're a different club than last year, but different doesn't mean we're worse," Maddon said. "I still like what we have and I fully expect to win a lot of games and to be playing in October."

Rumors and Rumblings:

 One scout's early pick for breakout player of the year is Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis: "He's finally going to be surrounded in the lineup by some major-league hitters, so he can relax and quit trying to carry the whole offense. He's a great hitter when he doesn't try to do too much and he looks very relaxed so far this spring." … The Twins are not shopping left-hander Francisco Liriano, but they will listen to offers and are willing to trade him if they are blown away by a proposal. … Rockies manager Jim Tracy says his biggest spring priority is finding a No. 5 hitter to bat behind shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and there are some in the organization who believe right fielder Seth Smith can fill that role. … While Giants first base prospect Brandon Belt appears ticketed to begin the season at Triple-A, one scout believes he is ready for the major leagues: "He is willing to wait for his pitch, and when he gets it, he hits the ball hard. He already knows how to hit." … One scout's take on Giants left-hander Barry Zito after he walked five of 13 batters he faced in his first Cactus League start: "He looks like he has totally lost the feel for pitching."

There are some in the Rangers' hierarchy who believe Mark Lowe, if recovered from last year's back surgery, could be ready to fill the closer's job, which would allow Neftali Feliz to move into the starting rotation. … The Rangers are considering approaching left-hander C.J. Wilson, shortstop Elvis Andrus, left fielder Josh Hamilton, and right fielder Nelson Cruz about multi-year contract extensions. … Blue Jays right-hander Dustin McGowan, who has missed the last two seasons following shoulder surgery, says he will retire if he does not feel he is progressing this season. … Nationals right-hander Yunesky Maya, who struggled in his first taste of the major leagues last season, is much improved, according to scouts who have watched him, "Now, you can see why the Nationals spent a lot of money to sign him when he defected from Cuba," says one. "The stuff is there now. It wasn't last year."

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There's a much-larger-than-zero chance that Zito has already thrown his last big-league pitch for the Giants. They don't need to run a guy out there tossing 86 mph without any control. I won't be at all surprised if SF takes advantage of its World Series credibility with fans and eats the rest of that contract.
I hate to say it, but is it truly surprising that Barry Zito "has totally lost the feel for pitching?" This is truly the case of The Contract That Ate The Player.
Yes, the man's been pitching for 25 years, and now he's suddenly incapable of doing it.

Please. It's a meaningless Cactus League outing.
Zito still - as of last reliable indication, 2010 = has serious value at the back of a rotation. it must be hard for the specter of the contract not to hinder objectivity in such a situation, but, please, this isn't Mike Hampton ca. 2005.
To the scout who has made a near measurable prediction - thank you. The vast number of reported comments by scouts are vague and vapid. I enjoying reading them like I enjoy reading a newspaper's daily horoscope. "Your thinking is all over the road and may be erroneous. Other than that, your week can flow nicely.." (Actual horoscope.) Popper would have a field day.

The downside of this statement about Nick Markakis is that what I would define as a breakout year (the BP's mathematical definition), is probably not the scout's. I'll make it easy - 10% above the best year as defined by WARP.
The Rays hitting almost certainly will be worse than 2010 and Manny will "play" about 100 games max with poor results as he drifts into his tired Manny Act. It will be fun during the first trips into Boston and NY but as the losses mount Manny will disappear. Damon can't hit enough to justify his play in LF. First base looks even worse than LF and DH.

The bullpen was what saved the Rays last year and that is degraded even more than the hitting. I see the Rays at .500, being optimistic, with a strong possibility of 4th place in the division, behind the Blue Jays.
If Manny does as poorly for the Rays as he did for the White Sox (TAv of .286), he would still be a step up for the Rays. And apparently you don't remember that Johnson outplayed Pena at 1B last year.

Yep, there is a chance this team will end up below .500. There is also a chance they win the division, or finishing last. And having the Jays end up 3rd is possible - but not very likely.