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02/25/12 3:27 PM EST

Rays embrace, don't shy away from elite tag

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- From the standpoint of finances, of course the Tampa Bay Rays are underdogs.

But on the field, they left the underdog category behind four years ago, and they show no signs of regression now. They have made three postseason appearances in the past four years. Only one team has been better than that: the Phillies, who are 4-for-4 in postseason appearances since 2008. Only one team ties the Rays in postseason appearances over the past four years: the Yankees.

This is where the Rays are now. They have not only moved well beyond the underdog designation, they have moved into the game's elite.

And as Spring Training 2012 unfolds at Charlotte Sports Park, it is clear that another postseason appearance by the Rays is at least probable. Tampa Bay is loaded with young and talented starting pitching. The Rays might have the deepest rotation in baseball. They are frequently mentioned in preseason national media accounts as a potential World Series team. They don't duck that evaluation. They embrace it.

"We didn't proclaim that, it was brought to us," manager Joe Maddon said Saturday. "People started to lay that expectation on us; we aren't doing that in a braggart kind of situation. So are we supposed to walk away from that? Of course not. And I also believe this: The moment you start walking away a little bit, that cuts at your fabric a little.

"I think we should utilize that more as fuel, as opposed to a false humility kind of thing, which I think does no good. I think our guys are truly humble people, but then there's false humility that doesn't ring very well. I like the fact that, 'OK, we are good.' People are asking us about this high level of expectations. Fine. Let's not run away from it. Let's use it as fuel. Let's make us burn to be that team. I much prefer that approach.

"Last year, we were trying to raise expectations. This year, everybody is trying to throw them our way. Actually, I'd like to hear that stuff every year. This is what we expect of ourselves. I think it's good for us."

The American League pennant was won by the Rays in 2008, but what Tampa Bay did last season may have been, from an organizational standpoint, its best work. Forced by economic circumstances to dramatically cut payroll, the Rays lost some of their best players, not to mention almost their entire bullpen. But they still fielded a team worthy of the postseason and they overtook the Red Sox to win the AL Wild Card berth.

The Rays have reached their current, lofty level the old-fashioned way, with astute scouting and diligent player development adding up to one of baseball's best and most productive farm systems. This is how it must be done with a franchise that isn't going to be able to buy its way out of difficulties. The 2011 Rays succeeded despite the fact that their player payroll, not much over $40 million, was the second lowest in the Majors.

For Tampa Bay, the work of that farm system is on daily display, requiring only a glance in any one of several directions during Spring Training workouts.

"I'm watching pitchers' fielding practice today and the last group had a bunch of guys nobody ever heard of, and they all had great arms," Maddon said. "All great arms and a part of our future. It's exciting to watch all this.

"That's who we have to be. Everybody keeps talking about the money side of things; 'We don't have enough money, we don't spend enough money, etc.' OK, let's say we're not in the same stratosphere regarding finances. Then you have to have your own pipeline created. You have to get your own, grow it yourself and make sure it's ripe at the right time.

"We're able to do that. And it's going to continue. When I read this stuff about, 'Well, it's not going to last,' nobody's obviously checked out our farm system. We've got a nice core group out there that's young, we've got a nice group coming up that plays our brand of baseball, the Rays' way of doing things. It's a nice feeder system, and that's what we have to be. If you want to have that kind of success annually, in our position, you'd better be able to do that."

For the Rays, the proof is in the pitching. Their pitching is talented and young, and thus relatively inexpensive. Tampa Bay has started a pitcher younger than 30 in its past 764 games, a modern Major League record.

That streak will be broken in James Shields' next start, because he turned 30 over the winter. Shields is coming off a truly impressive season. David Price, 26, is an extraordinary talent. Rookie Matt Moore has tremendous potential and he already has a postseason victory, although he is only 22. Jeremy Hellickson, the AL Rookie of the Year Award winner in 2011, is 24. Either Jeff Niemann, who turns 29 on Tuesday, or Wade Davis, 26, would make arguably as good a fifth starter as could be found in the game.

What the Rays have achieved is even more impressive, because they reside in the most difficult competitive neighborhood available in contemporary baseball, the AL East.

The competition is fierce, but the Rays not only compete, they win. This year, the question for this team is not about whether it can win. The jury is in on that question. The question is: How close to the summit of baseball can the Tampa Bay Rays climb?

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