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02/26/11 4:45 PM EST

Rays are clearly built for sustained success

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The success of the Tampa Bay Rays in recent seasons has been good for baseball.

The Rays have been a triumph of intelligence and diligence -- not to mention astute scouting and highly effective player development -- over the raw power of money. They have been baseball's best advertisement for parity, a source of hope for small-market franchises.

They won two division titles in baseball's toughest division over the last three years, and an American League pennant. So what is their payoff? The Rays lose some of their best players for economic reasons and must regroup. Nobody said either life or baseball was always fair.

They lost, for instance, a speedy, versatile left fielder who had been a franchise staple; a power-hitting, slick-fielding first baseman; a solid shortstop, an accomplished starting pitcher, and reliever after reliever, including the leading closer of 2010.

And yet, the cupboard is far from bare here. To the contrary, the Rays -- after all of the personnel losses -- still have the fundamental building blocks in place for future success. How much of that success occurs in the 2011 season is an open question, but overall, the Rays' chances have been diminished, but not devastated.

The Rays still have a fine rotation, headed by David Price, who was 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA last year. Price started the Rays' exhibition opener Saturday against the Pirates at Charlotte Sports Park and pitched a scoreless inning in what became a 9-5 Tampa Bay victory.

Price is just 25, and has the stuff and the makeup to be a dominant pitcher for years to come. Asked what his expectations were now after a superior 2010, Price replied: "I want to just get better. That's what I plan on doing."

The remainder of this rotation -- even in the absence of Matt Garza, who was traded to the Cubs -- is, at worst, well above the Major League average. The Rays could use a bounce-back season from James Shields, but, overall, this rotation is not only solid, but is young enough that substantial improvement could reasonably be projected.

The Rays fortified themselves at the top level of the Minors through the Garza trade. Included in the package of four prospects was one of the top pitching prospects in the game, Chris Archer. The Rays have had one of the most productive Minor League systems in the game, but more top-flight pitching never hurts. For the immediate future, the Rays also picked up a useful player, and a superior defensive outfielder, in Sam Fuld.

Tampa Bay's offense will feel the losses of Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena, but it does not have to disappear from the face of the Earth.

"It has balance; speed and power," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of his new lineup. "I like it."

The remaining Rays should still be defensively sound. The core of the lineup still includes third baseman Evan Longoria, one of the game's brightest young stars. The Rays continue to hope that center fielder B.J. Upton's production will rise to meet his considerable potential. For middle-of-the-order help, there is the Rays' new designated hitter, Manny Ramirez.

Manny is being the best Manny he can be, which means that he is on his best behavior. He is a gregarious presence in the clubhouse, a good teammate, and with the work ethic he is exhibiting, he is practically a role model for a sound approach to Spring Training. This is how it goes when Manny comes to work for a new employer. The Rays, wisely giving Ramirez a one-year deal, may never have to witness the downside of his behavior pattern, which typically comes later in his term of employment.

For the moment, Manny is with the force and the force is with him.

"He's working really hard," Maddon said Saturday. "He's working hard on his outfield play, too. He knows what he's doing. He's very mapped out."

The Rays plan to use Ramirez occasionally in left. Johnny Damon has been brought in as the regular there. He'll provide a boost, one way or another. He's been the morale officer at every place that he's played, and he's been on World Series winners at two previous stops.

The question with Ramirez now is simple and direct: Can he still hit the way he used to hit? He had one hit in two trips Saturday, and the out was a drive to right-center. But the record of the last two years indicates that he has not been the same hitter since he returned from a 50-game suspension in 2009 for violating baseball's drug policy. But at the moment, Manny has become sort of a tourist attraction for the Rays -- and a happy attraction, at that.

The Tampa Bay bullpen is an open question, and an open competition. Both the roles and the individuals involved are yet to be determined. Maddon has said that the organizational depth is impressive and it needs to be. In the early exhibition games, Maddon is urging the bullpen candidates to just get the necessary work done.

"I really don't want them to compete yet," he said. "I'm not going to be judgmental the first few times out."

With the strength of the starting pitching still on hand, with the organizational depth available, with the proven ability to build a winner without spending zillions, the Rays should not be written off, dismissed out of hand, or in any way severely diminished. What has happened with their personnel losses of this winter has made the degree of difficulty in this next challenge significantly higher. But it not as though this franchise can be consigned to the status of a long-term loser. That is the one thing that won't happen.

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