© 2008 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

03/03/08 8:10 PM ET

Rays have much reason for hope

After long process, team's hard work seems primed to pay off

LAKELAND, Fla. -- There is a brand new direction occurring for a team that has previously been familiar largely with being down and staying there.

There is a genuine buzz around the 2008 version of the Tampa Bay Rays, and it is not the result of a promotional gimmick. They have lost the "Devil" portion of their name and have added genuine promise to their repertoire.

There are exciting young players here. There are young pitchers with real talent who are good right now and might well be much better than that later on. There have been some additions of veterans who have brought a positive presence. And after recent seasons in which the Rays were forced to be essentially a player development operation at the Major League level, they are poised for nothing less than a corner-turning campaign.

"Yes, we totally expect that to occur," said Rays manager Joe Maddon on Monday.

It ought to be noted, even in the general context that exhibition games don't literally count, that by early Monday evening, the Rays had the best exhibition record in baseball, and the best start to an exhibition season in franchise history at 4-0.

This followed a 10-9 victory at Joker Marchant Stadium over the imposing Detroit Tigers, a contest that took four hours, two minutes, and required the Rays to rally from a four-run deficit. It was, of course, merely a Spring Training game, but apart from its duration, what was striking about it was a dogged persistence displayed by the Rays.

"That was one of the longest Spring Training games I've ever been involved in," Maddon said, "but if you're going to stick around that long, you want to win, and I'm really pleased at the way our guys went about their business."

The game was notable for the exhibition debut of one of Tampa's extremely promising young pitchers, Matt Garza, 24, a hard thrower obtained in a trade from the Minnesota Twins. He is one of a trio of truly talented young starting pitchers who could form the core of a successful rotation for years to come.

Lefty Scott Kazmir, also 24, has already established himself at this level, and although he is currently suffering from an elbow strain, the Rays do not believe that the injury is serious. James Shields, 26, was 12-8 last season with an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.11.

The Rays haven't previously had this kind of pitching potential, which is one good reason why they have never had a winning season. But you can see clearly from here where and now the breakthrough could occur.

The Rays like Garza's stuff and they like his makeup.

"He's high-energy, he very much gets into it, he likes to be out there, he likes to compete," Maddon said. "I get all that from him. Just watching him work, the ball has great low carry to it. It's a really good finish to the fastball. That's unusual, and you have to throw pretty hard to get that kind of finish to the ball."

Garza's work on Monday illustrated his potential, although it also illustrated just how tough the Tigers' lineup is. A series of Detroit hitters spoiled quality pitches, fouling them off repeatedly, driving up Garza's pitch count to the point where he could pitch only 1 2/3 innings in his first spring outing.

"They're going to do that to a lot of people all year," Maddon noted.

Garza gave up two earned runs. He was not as sharp as he could be, but he also wasn't pounded relentlessly by the heavy-hitting Tigers. At the end of it, Garza knew exactly what happened, and he sounded like he couldn't wait to take the mound again.

"I'll get better every time out, that's the plan," Garza said.

It's a good plan, and with a pitcher of this ability, it is also not a pipe dream.

There is no question that with the young pitching talent, and players of the caliber of Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and perhaps this spring's most prominent prospect, third baseman Evan Longoria, this is an operation on the rise. The questions would be: How soon does the improvement come, and how much improvement can be expected?

The Rays won 66 games last season. They ought to be significantly better than that this season. This is easily the most talented team this franchise has had. It will not be a last-place team this summer.

On the other hand, competing in the American League East is not a ticket to making incredible strides, regardless of how much improvement you're making. It would be arbitrary to pick a number of victories that the Rays should achieve this season. The important thing is that the Rays themselves believe that they are ready to ditch all the negative history and make a move.

"Within the group, we're going to have a very high level of expectations," Maddon said. "It really doesn't matter what the general public thinks, I know what the guys think. I'm really going to refrain from stating any numbers. All I know is that what we want to see is progress. That can be measured in so many different ways, but primarily it has to be measured through wins -- no question, you've got to get more wins."

Maddon followed up this observation with a comprehensive list of every area of the game in which his team could and should make improvements. It is easy to say of this franchise that the Rays have considerable room for improvement. What is more to the current point is that they are now ready, willing and able to make those improvements.

Maddon has spoken frequently of "changing the culture," an intangible but necessary step for a team that has only known losing seasons. The manager believes that the necessary changes are in place in this area, too.

"I believe that it is starting to tip in our favor," Maddon said. "It's not easy and it doesn't happen overnight, and there's patience involved and planning, and we've been doing that for the last two years. Obviously, it's better now. It is."

The Tampa Bay Rays will be better this year, too. How much better? Let's just say that their improvement will be notable, and better still for the long-term future of this franchise, it won't be temporary.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.