There was no bigger story in baseball last year than the Rays, as the Tampa Bay franchise, which had known nothing but futility since its inception in 1998, dropped the Devil from its nickname, changed its color scheme and its uniform, and then dramatically changed their losing ways. In one of the more stunning turnarounds in the history of the game, the Rays went from having the worst record in the major leagues in 2007 with a 66-96 mark, to going 97-65 and winning the American League pennant by beating the White Sox in the Division Series and the Red Sox in the Championship Series. Though the Rays fell to the Phillies in the World Series in five games, their transformation from laughingstock to champion was astonishing.

The 2009 season is fast approaching, and it will be interesting to see where the Rays go from here, as they prepare to defend their AL championship and their AL East title against the powerful Yankees and Red Sox. New York has spent more than $400 million on free agents, signing left-hander CC Sabathia, right-hander A.J. Burnett, and first baseman Mark Teixeira, and despite a quiet winter, the Red Sox remain formidable.

Though the Rays return with the nucleus of their team intact, some things will be different this year. They’ll no longer be considered the underdogs, nor will they be looked upon as the poor souls who play in the goofy domed stadium in St. Petersburg, just a B.J. Upton home run away from the magnificent Sunshine State Skyway. This time out, the Rays are supposed to win. “I think it’s great to play in this division,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “Playing in this division keeps you on your toes every minute of the day. I think it’s wonderful to have a high level of expectations on our back. I think it’s great, and I think it’s going to bring out the best in our guys.”

Another change for the Rays this year is that they will no longer hold spring training in St. Petersburg. Instead, they’ve moved down the Gulf Coast to Port Charlotte, Florida, taking over a refurbished spring-training base that had been abandoned by the Rangers earlier this decade when they joined the exodus of teams leaving the Grapefruit League for the Cactus League.

Maddon believes that having their facility in a more out-of-the-way location, where the major leaguers and minor leaguers can train together, will have its advantages, perhaps lessening the possibility of his team becoming complacent following its first taste of success. “It’s going to be wonderful to have everyone together,” Maddon said. “Now, the coaches on our staff and I can get over to see the kids in the minor leagues and show them the way we want things done, the Rays’ way of playing baseball, if you will. It’s going to be a new experience for all of us to not be training in our hometown. It’s going to be beneficial. I think you’ll probably see a little more bonding. We already have a close-knit group, and it’s only going to get closer.”

As far as Maddon is concerned, the Rays’ World Series loss should help keep them hungry in 2009, and he thinks that the character of his team will prevent it from to becoming too comfortable with last year’s amazing run. “We got to the World Series, but we still have a major goal ahead of us that we haven’t achieved, and that’s to become world champions,” Maddon said. “I think once you’ve tasted going to the playoffs, being one of the last eight teams, you want to be one of those every year. You don’t want to have a barbeque on October 3 or 4, invite everyone over for a steak and a couple of beers, and watch a playoff game. I hate that. I believe our guys have gotten to the point where they want to participate and be the show for everybody else having a barbeque.”

After ending their magical season with a loss in Game Five of the World Series, there had been a sense of closure missing in the Rays’ clubhouse. Instead of tears in the eyes of the players, there were looks of disbelief that they had not won. “We really thought we were going to win. We really did, even though we were in difficult circumstances,” Maddon said. “We all figured we were going to figure it out and pull it out somehow, and then it was over, and it was like, ‘you mean there’s no game tomorrow?’ I had a little meeting with the boys afterward. I tend to get emotional, and I’m not really good in those moments, so I tried to convey to them one-one-one that we hadn’t finished our business yet.”

The Rays will have essentially the same cast of characters making another run at the postseason. They’ve added Matt Joyce, who had a .282 EqA as a rookie last year, to play right field, acquiring him from the Tigers in a trade that sent starting pitcher Edwin Jackson to Detroit. Right-hander Joe Nelson has been added to the bullpen, though his 0.866 WXRL suggests his 2.00 ERA in 54 innings with the Marlins last season was accomplished in low-leverage situations.

The Rays’ last remaining move this winter is to acquire a designated hitter to replace Cliff Floyd, who became a free agent and is leaning toward retirement. They’ve been linked to a number of veteran hitters on the free-agent market, including Bobby Abreu, Garret Anderson, Pat Burrell, and Jason Giambi. “If you just break down the team-it’s not rocket science-to see where offensively, in what we did at that position last year, the potential to improve upon it is there,” Maddon said. “It’s like [Rays vice president of baseball operations] Andrew Friedman always says, we’re constantly trying to upgrade in different areas. You’re always trying to get better. You never rest in this game.”

Jeff Moorad is just full of surprises. One of the most high-powered agents in sports after combining forces with football super-agent Leigh Steinberg, he suddenly left the business in 2004 to buy into the Diamondbacks‘ ownership group. He also became their CEO. Now Moorad has put together a group that has agreed in principle to buy the Padres from John Moores, who offered the team for sale last month as he continues through bitter divorce proceedings.

Moorad prefers not to comment on the sale until the process is completed, but he did say that his group will be comprised primarily of investors on the West Coast and in the San Diego area. He also told Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune that the Padres are a “jewel of a franchise.” The deal has come together quickly, with a price tag generally assumed to be around $425 million, and expectations of unanimous approval of the sale by the rest of baseball’s ownership.

The Padres went 63-99 last season, just one year after losing to the Rockies in a one-game playoff for the National League wild card. Padres general manager Kevin Towers was ordered by Moores to slash the payroll this winter, and since Moorad would not take control of the franchise until at least after the beginning of spring training, it’s unlikely that the Padres would have time to reverse course and spend more money for the 2009 season. However, Moorad says he has plans to turn the Padres into winners. The Padres have been to two World Series in their 40-year history, losing in both 1984 and 1998.

Ironically, Moorad interviewed Towers for the Diamondbacks’ GM job following the 2005 season, eventually hiring Red Sox assistant GM Josh Byrnes. There are strong indications that Moorad is considering replacing Towers, who has the longest tenure of any current GM; he was hired in 1996, along with CEO Sandy Alderson. “I am certain I will be able to help craft a plan, assuming our deal is finalized, that ensures a competitive team year in and year out, and ultimately produces a World Series championship that the Padres organization and its fans so richly deserve,” Moorad said.

Moorad will sell his shares in the Diamondbacks to managing general partner Ken Kendrick and his partnership. Kendrick immediately added CEO to club president Derrick Hall’s title. Hall had been president the last two years, after working for many years in public and media relations for the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. “He’s a hard-working, bright guy, and I think is the perfect candidate to step up,” Kendrick told Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic.

After a relatively quiet beginning to their offseason, the Cubs got busy on the final day of 2008 when second baseman Mark DeRosa was traded to the Indians for pitching prospects. The deal came just hours after the Cubs had signed infielder Aaron Miles as a free agent to share time at second base with Mike Fontenot next season. It could be a case of Cubs GM Jim Hendry selling high on DeRosa after his career-high .296 EqA last season, but a more likely reason for the trade was that it sets up a number of other moves.

The Cubs have made no secret of their desire to sign free-agent outfielder Milton Bradley to fill their need for a left-handed hitter to play right field, which would enable the disappointing Kosuke Fukudome to move into a center-field platoon with Reed Johnson. The Cubs also want to add a veteran backup catcher to replace Henry Blanco, and are trying to sign free-agent Paul Bako, who spent last season with the Reds.

However, the biggest move could be the Cubs making a renewed bid to trade for Padres right-hander Jake Peavy, particularly since Hendry also has a deal in place to ship starter Jason Marquis to the Rockies for reliever Luis Vizcaino after replenishing the organization’s stock of pitching prospects with the DeRosa deal. “We certainly wouldn’t close the door on anything,” Hendry told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. “Once we add the outfielder we want to add, we’ll take a good look where we’re at. The pen is getting deeper and deeper. We’ll see how we want to shape up the starting situation, whether we pursue somebody else, or use somebody internally in that role.”

Meanwhile, the Indians will use DeRosa at third base, and GM Mark Shapiro was happy to add an infielder without disrupting the positions of second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera or shortstop Jhonny Peralta. The Indians had considered trading for a second baseman, intending to shift Cabrera to shortstop and Peralta to third base. “DeRosa is the perfect fit for us,” Shapiro told Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “We’re going with what we feel is our best infield. If we felt moving three guys gave us our best infield, we would have done it.”

Free-agent closer Brian Fuentes became an unlikely beneficiary of the Yankees’ signing of free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira to an eight-year, $180 million contract. Had the Angels been able to re-sign Teixeira, they would not have had enough room in their payroll to offer Fuentes his two-year, $17.5 million contract.

Fuentes made it clear that the Angels were his first choice after closer Francisco Rodriguez left to sign as a free agent with the Mets last month. Fuentes had turned down a more lucrative offer from the Cardinals in order to sign with a team in his home state of California. “I knew with Frankie on the free-agent market I had a chance to get to Anaheim,” Fuentes said. “Being from California, it’s always nice to stay here and have that comfort zone. The Angels are a class organization, they’re in the playoffs just about every year, and I hear [Mike] Scioscia is a players’ manager.”

Fuentes had a 3.586 WXRL for the Rockies last season, a higher figure than any Angels reliever except Rodriguez (5.649). Though Rodriguez broke the major league saves record with 62, Fuentes had the edge on him in strikeouts per nine innings (11.8 to 10.1), walks per nine innings (3.2 to 4.5), home runs per nine innings (0.4 to 0.5), and hits per nine innings (6.8 to 7.1). “Brian strengthens our bullpen in a significant way,” Angels GM Tony Reagins said. “He gives us some depth, and really solidifies the back of the bullpen.”

ML Rumors and Rumblings:
The Giants are apparently serious about their pursuit of free-agent outfielder Manny Ramirez; one baseball source claims they are considering making two offers, one which would guarantee two years with vesting and club options that could make it a four-year, $100 million contract, and another that would guarantee him $63 million for three years with no options. … Free-agent pitcher Derek Lowe turned down the Mets’ three-year, $36 million offer, and reportedly has still not given up on the idea that he could land a five-year, $80 million contract, though any offer of that kind now seems extremely doubtful. … Barry Bonds had hip surgery with the idea of returning to the field in 2009, leading some inside the game to speculate that he will pursue collusion charges after being shunned as a free agent by all 30 teams last year, despite posting a .480 OBP while hitting 28 home runs in 477 plate appearances for the Giants in 2007… Outfielder Andruw Jones will have the option of asking for his release before spring training in the deal he is working out with the Dodgers. It would defer much of the $22 million he has remaining on his contract, reducing his 2009 salary to $5 million, and trimming a deferred $12 million off of Los Angeles’ payroll next season. … Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is considering using Chris Carpenter as his closer next season, instead of relying on youngsters Chris Perez and Jason Motte. … The Orioles have made a one-year offer heavily laden with incentives to Japanese free-agent pitcher Kenshin Kawakami. … Rangers middle-infielder German Duran could factor in at third base for the Rangers next season after playing the hot corner during winter ball in Mexico.

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i hope the yankees sign bonds, just to see the reaction. it would be so violently chaotic that the absurdity of the whole charade, what with bonds playing the axe to mlb\'s raskolnikov.
err...meant to have \"absurdity of the whole charade becomes painfully obvious.\"
I hope Bonds sues MLB and\'s clear there was collusion last year.
i don\'t know if carpenter is healthy. but if he is, and TLR uses him as a closer, i am going to do him like delmon does ladycop.
John, I eagerly await your pieces and appreciate your work. As a writer, you should know how to use the word \"comprised.\" Please look it up and use it correctly. Misuse undermines your credibility, which is otherwise considerable.
Professional writers, especially journalistic ones generally use editors. A typo of that nature is generally the responsibility of the editor.
Even so, you should have been able to figure it out without resorting to snarkiness.
Top right there is a \"contact author\" tab. Why the public spectacle?
Waldo, Please look it up yourself.
John: You say the Cubs intend to platoon Miles and Fontenot at 2B, but I am puzzled by Fontenot\'s status with the Cubs. According to Cot\'s,he had a one year deal for the 2008 season. No announcement whether he was tendered a new contract; apparently he was not arb-eligible. So what gives? The Cubs Web site has his name still on their depth chart, but he has no contract for 2009? I think he\'s an attractive fit for a number of clubs needing help at 2B- the Mets?- but it isn\'t clear to me who owns his contract rights.
I\'m pretty sure Fontenot is the starting 2B. He doesn\'t have 2 years of eligibility yet so doesn\'t have to sign on the dotted until spring training(?). And he\'s not going anywhere, that\'s certain. And Fontenot\'s a much better 2B than DeRosa,no matter how much ESPN fawns over him. The way Felix Pie is being ignored, he must be already wrapped up for San Diego.