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03/21/12 11:00 AM ET

Dangerous Rays expect to win it all

Recent success has raised expectations for Tampa Bay

TAMPA, Fla. -- It's not supposed to be this way, you know.

The Tampa Bay Rays are supposed to be the lovable underdogs. With their puny payroll -- relative to two particular intradivisional juggernauts -- they're supposed to take on the personality of the Little Ballclub That Could.

They're not supposed to be ranked alongside the Yankees and Red Sox as potential favorites in the brutal American League East. And they're certainly not supposed to be talking about the World Series before the first proper pitch of the season has been thrown.

But the Rays, as we know well by now, are anything but conventional. So although their success in the past four years (three postseason appearances, two division titles and one World Series appearance, in 2008) is something of a feel-good fairy tale, internally they have come to expect such success.

And in 2012, they're firmly expecting to go all the way.

"I would think in every locker room [winning the World Series is] mentioned, but with degrees of believability attached to it," manager Joe Maddon said. "With us, we really believe it as being a possibility. In 2008, I was talking about playing the last game of the year. We did, but we didn't win it. So now we've got to play the last game of the year and win it. That's our goal."

The Rays are the exception to revenue reality. They are the framework for every small market to follow -- a club built largely on the basis of homegrown pitching, a club with a shrewd and sophisticated but above all else creative managerial/front-office pairing, and a club so closely bonded that when an opportunity came to raise money for pediatric cancer research by shaving heads this spring, 71 players, coaches and staffers said, "Bring on the razor."

It is, to put it succinctly, a special group -- one that doesn't shy away from proclamations, be they internal or external, about its potential.

"Every team I've been on here, we've had high expectations," left-hander David Price said. "But this year, for others to have those high expectations for us, is different. People are recognizing what we've done the last couple of years and now are picking us to do some big things. It's a change."

It's also well deserved, because in Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann, Tampa Bay has one of the deepest starting pitching pools in the big leagues (last year, Rays starters worked the most innings and had the lowest ERA of any AL team), and each and every one of those arms was developed in-house.

Shields is the only one to have reached the advanced age of 30. In fact, when he throws the season's first pitch on Opening Day against the Yanks, it will be the first time in 764 games that a Tampa Bay starter will be over the age of 29.

"Those guys are so young," said Yankees ace CC Sabathia, "and they're pretty much all polished. You rarely see that."

The polish, the Rays will tell you, comes from being brought up the right way.

"I think this organization does a good job of really holding guys back in the Minor Leagues and not bringing them up to the big leagues too fast," Shields said. "Our scouting department has been phenomenal. You've really got to pay tribute to them. A lot of our guys are homegrown, and that's a testament to them."

At some point, arms like Shields perform to the point of pricing themselves out of Tampa Bay's range, which is why it is pivotal that the scouting and development side of the equation keeps pumping premier players through the pipeline. And when you can lock up such players early in their Major League careers to ensure long-term cost control, all the better.

Such was the case with Moore this winter, when the Rays signed him to a five-year, $14 million extension just five appearances into his big league career. Moore is a big reason why so many people are saying such nice things about Tampa Bay this spring, for his incredible outing against Texas in last year's AL Division Series (seven shutout innings with just two hits, two walks and a hit batter) foretold of bigger things to come.

For a team on a budget, the injection of a young talent like Moore far exceeds the impact any free-agent acquisition could muster. And so a deep Rays staff looks even deeper on paper.

"What Matt Moore did in the playoffs last year was pretty amazing, pretty special," utility man extraordinaire Ben Zobrist said. "Keeping his composure in that atmosphere, it says a lot about his makeup. We feel very confident in all of those guys who are going to step on top of that mound."

The Rays are also confident that their bullpen -- decimated by free agency after 2010 and then all but completely rebuilt last spring -- will again be dependable.

"Last year we were struggling to find six or seven good names for our 'pen," Maddon said. "But at the beginning of the year, Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta held it down, and our starting pitchers went deep into the game. This year our bullpen's a lot deeper from Day 1, with the additions of Fernando Rodney, Burke Badenhop and Josh Lueke. We love our pitching."

Is the offense as lovable?

Well, that all depends.

Largely, it depends on the health of Evan Longoria. In 2011, Longoria missed most of April with an oblique strain and played most of the year with a nerve issue in his left foot, an issue that required surgery at season's end. The result was that "Longo" was never quite himself, batting just .244, though he still managed to smack 31 home runs, including one in the season finale that immediately became one of the most famous in the game's long history.

The Rays likely wouldn't be able to sustain those World Series expectations if Longoria were dealt a serious injury, and so the fact that the foot is no longer bothering him is a welcome development, indeed.

"I think everybody knows he's primed for a great season," Zobrist said.

Zobrist, who has turned in an .823 OPS over the past four seasons while manning multiple positions, is one of the game's more valuable commodities, so he helps augment the offense surrounding Longoria. And Tampa Bay will also have Desmond Jennings -- who made an instant impact upon his arrival last summer -- for a full season, and he should should go a long way from the leadoff spot.

The Rays hit the market for additional help, with Carlos Pena brought back for a return engagement in the Trop and Luke Scott added as another power presence. Tampa Bay was a middle-of-the-road offensive club that struck out too frequently (1,193 strikeouts, third most in the league) and was much more productive on the road (397 runs) than at home (310).

Scott will be limited to DH duties in the early going after undergoing surgery last summer to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. But a healthy Scott averaged 25 home runs from 2008-10, so he should help. Pena's return could also be a boost, though it might be a concern that his move to Wrigley Field last season did not lead to a dramatic power improvement, and he's struggled against left-handed pitching.

The Rays, though, always seem to be a bit better than the sum of their individual parts. It's a collective cohesion that makes them so dangerous, and, as cheesy as it might sound, it all starts with Maddon's unique leadership -- the themed road trips, the consistency of communication, the creativity employed on and off the field.

"He's quirky and different and thinks outside the box," Zobrist said. "That would be annoying if he was inconsistent or emotionally up and down. But he's very consistent, very much a steadfast manager. He's a guy you can count on to have a positive attitude, no matter the standings or how we've played recently."

Last July, the standings had the Rays pegged for dead, but they went 35-20 down the stretch and bumped Boston from the AL Wild Card spot.

Now, with another Wild Card on the table and the rotation intact, the Rays are a popular pick to advance again. But mere advancement to the postseason is not their goal.

They want it all.

"I'd much rather go into a season with an attitude like this," Maddon said. "I think that's part of the maturation process. I think if you start running away from expectations, you start setting yourself up for the fall. ... Our players embrace it. Our guys are not intimidated by moments or situations. We want these expectations in that locker room."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.