There have been unfamiliar sights in the stands of various spring training stadiums along Florida’s Gulf Coast during the early stages of the Grapefruit League season: people can be spotted wearing Tampa Bay Rays caps, T-shirts, and jerseys. Perhaps it’s the new color scheme of blue and green, part of the rebranding of the franchise from Devil Rays to Rays, that has caught the locals’ fancy. However, it is more likely the fans are excited about the collection of young talent the Rays have assembled after a decade of futility, when they averaged of 97.2 losses a season since the franchise began play in 1998. Whatever the reason, the Rays finally have fans–and expectations, too. Talk-show callers frequently suggest a season of 80 wins-plus, and so does PECOTA, forecasting an 89-73 finish for the Rays in 2008.

It is all heady stuff for a franchise that has never won more than 70 games in a season. Rays manager Joe Maddon, though, couldn’t be happier that people are finally expecting something other than futility. “I like the idea that everyone is expecting more of us because we have reached the stage where more should be expected,” Maddon said. “We’ve been through the growing pains of losing for a long time here and now we’ve put together a team that can be competitive. There should be expectations on us. We have a young team, but we’ve supplemented it with some good veteran players, and it is at a point where we should start winning more games. Expectations are part of playing in the big leagues, and our younger guys need to learn that.”

The Rays’ group of young talent has been well documented, as eight of the nine members of their projected lineup are under 30: catcher Dioner Navarro (.225 EqA last season), first baseman Carlos Pena (.336), second baseman Akinori Iwamura (.268), third baseman Evan Longoria (.299 at Triple-A), shortstop Jason Bartlett (.253), left fielder Carl Crawford (.285), center fielder B.J. Upton (.302), and right fielder Rocco Baldelli (.219). If Jonny Gomes (.267) starts at designated hitter instead of Cliff Floyd (.269), then the entire starting nine will be made up of players in their 20s. Longoria is considered one of the game’s top prospects, ranking third in the BP Top 100, and the underachieving Navarro and chronically injured Baldelli were also rated among the best prospects in baseball when they were coming through the minor leagues. The Rays had three players that ranked among the top 25 in the AL VORP last season, with Pena (fifth, 68.5), Upton (15th, 46.9), and Crawford (23rd, 38.0).

The Rays also have two front-of-the-rotation starters in 26-year-old right-hander James Shields and 24-year-old left-hander Scott Kazmir. Kazmir suffered a scare with a twinge in his elbow earlier this spring, but should be fine for Opening Day. Shields was 12th in the AL with a SNLVAR mark of 5.8 last season, and Kazmir was 15th with 5.5. Right-hander Matt Garza (2.0), the centerpiece of a big off-season trade that sent right fielder Delmon Young to Minnesota, has considerable promise, while right-handers Edwin Jackson (1.5) and Andy Sonnanstine (1.2) should at least be adequate placeholders until top prospects David Price (a left-hander selected with the first overall pick in last year’s draft from Vanderbilt) and right-hander Wade Davis are ready.

The Rays, however, are asking a veteran to fill the role of closer after signing 38-year-old Troy Percival to a two-year, $8 million contact as a free agent. Percival’s comeback with St. Louis last season after a two-year hiatus was a success, and he contributed a 1.148 WXRL in 40 innings. In addition to getting the 27th out, Percival is being looked to by the Rays to provide veteran leadership on a team perennially lacking in that category. (That was also the reason why Floyd was signed as a free agent over the winter.)

While Maddon may wear those Buddy Holly-style glasses, he is as new age as any major league manager. He understands the value of statistical analysis, quotes various sabermetric principles during his pre-game radio show, and is a regular reader of Baseball Prospectus. However, Maddon also knows the values of intangibles. He was the bench coach for the 2002 Anaheim Angels when they proved to be greater than the sum of their parts in winning that franchise’s first and only World Series title.

“You can have all the young talent in the world, but you need somebody to guide those players and show them the way to winning,” Maddon said. “Now a layman might say that’s the manager’s job and he would be correct. However, there is also a dynamic in a major league clubhouse that is hard to explain if you haven’t actually been in one to see what goes on. A player is more likely to listen to a veteran who has won before than a manager or coach when it comes to talking about how to win. Furthermore, a player is a lot less likely to get a sympathetic audience from his peers if another player corrects him on the way of going about how to be a professional than he would if he is corrected by a manager or coach. That’s just the way human nature is, and you can never take the human element out of the game.”

Excitability is also a human element, and the Rays are showing plenty of that this spring. Many of their players are openly talking about being in the pennant race despite playing in the American League East with the division’s twin superpowers, the Red Sox and Yankees, and another possible contender in the Blue Jays.

“Guys are so excited about this season that anything can happen,” Upton said. “I mean anything, including making the playoffs. It’s going to be a lot of fun and I think the attitude we have is going to take us a long way this year.”

That is pretty big talk coming from a franchise that has been a perennial punchline on David Letterman’s Top 10 lists. Yet, Maddon is perfectly happy about his players dreaming big. “Every team should strive for wanting to win and playing baseball in October,” Maddon said. “That’s our goal for this season. We want to still be standing when October comes around.”

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