ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Devil Rays finished out of last place for the first time in 2004 and won a team-record 70 games, and they tied for the Major League season high with a 12-game winning streak.

So why will the Rays start the 2005 season with five new faces in their Opening Day lineup?

It's all part of the plan for them to eventually compete in the tough American League East. It's a plan that general manager Chuck LaMar first saw work when he was with the Reds and Pirates in the late 1980s and then again with the Braves in the early 1990s.

The plan calls for the establishment of a core of young position players first. Then, when the proper opportunities arise, the team fills in with veteran leaders, and lastly adds top-notch pitching.

"We hope to continue to sign and develop players through the draft," LaMar said. "We made a point of getting position players early on. Everyone knows you win with pitching, but we wanted to establish our team on the field first. Develop a core of good, young players and hold onto them and increase the payroll."

Info:

Of course, it's not that simple to execute. There are pitfalls, and changes that must be made along the way. For example, the Rays continue to pay the price for questionable free agent signings before the 2000 season. The deferred money from those deals still is being counted against their yearly payroll budget.

"Every team in baseball has deferred salaries," LaMar said. "We are the only organization that still talks about what it did (wrong) six years ago."

But there is good news on that front.

"We still have some deferred money, but within two years it will be off the books," LaMar said. "We will be glad to get that money off the books and increase our spending. When we start to increase payroll, we will sign more of our core, younger players to long-term deals."

As a result, LaMar and the Rays believe they are just a couple of seasons from making their mark for the first time.

"The players are happy to be here," LaMar said after he addressed his full squad before their first workout on Wednesday. "We're better as a team and they know it. I told them we are truly a year or two away from reaping the benefits of all of our hard work. That's when we'll have a chance to truly compete against those big boys in the American League East."

The Rays went a combined 9-29 against the Yankees and Red Sox last season, and were 61-62 against all other opponents.

"We have to start to show these young players that we can play better against the Yankees and Red Sox, especially on the road," LaMar said. "When we start to do that, we'll know we're making progress."

But progress in the present is measured in three ways for LaMar and the Rays, and it has been especially tough to accomplish all of them.

"We're still walking a very fine line," LaMar said. "We're trying to hit on three distinct areas, and it's hard to hit on all three. We're trying to win as many games as we possibly can every year. That's our job. A Major League organization owes it to their fan base to try to win as many games as they possibly can.

"However, we're trying to build for the future as well. And we're doing that with one of the lowest -- if not the lowest -- payrolls in baseball. To hit on all three of those areas is tough to do."

The combination of their goals has made the Rays a team in constant transition player-wise, although its core of young players is growing. Outfielders Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli are already established. The also team figures to have prospects B.J. Upton, Jorge Cantu and Delmon Young in the regular lineup by next season, along with Jorge Cantu.

To fill in during this season, the Rays brought in accomplished second baseman Roberto Alomar to help tutor Upton and Cantu. They signed Alex S. Gonzalez for third base and Danny Bautista for the outfield in the hopes that they would blossom in the American League. And they took a chance on DH Josh Phelps, hoping that by giving him 500 at-bats, he could provide much-needed right-handed pop.

The Rays also brought in veteran starters Hideo Nomo and Denny Neagle in the hopes that one of the two could return to form enough to work Opening Day and keep the pressure off their young pitchers.

With the acquisition of 21-year-old lefty Scott Kazmir and the drafting of 6-foot-9 right-hander Jeff Niemann last summer, the Rays believe they have made a strong move forward in terms of young pitching.

Add in hard-throwing rotation candidates Dewon Brazelton, Doug Waechter and Seth McClung and top relief prospects Angel Garcia and Chad Orvella, and the Rays feel that the foundation of lively arms has been set.

"You are looking at a group of some of the fine young arms in baseball," LaMar said. "We are just missing a No. 1 and a No. 2 starter. There are two ways to get them. Develop your own, as we hope we will with the Niemanns and the Kazmirs and maybe the Brazeltons and McClungs and Waechters, or you have to go out and acquire them. Trade for them or sign them.

   Scott Kazmir  /   P
Born: 01/24/84
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 170 lbs
Bats: L / Throws: L

"But right now, I wouldn't trade our young arms for anybody's in baseball."

And it's not like any of the veterans the Rays signed are going to be in the way of any prospects who are ready.

All of the free agent signings were for one year and for relatively little money, some with incentive clauses based on health and production. All of the new players may be around for just this season. The team is simply hoping to get lucky as it has with two of its top players, shortstop Julio Lugo (released by the Astros) and closer Danys Baez (Indians, free agent).

The Rays could do as other teams have during a building process and go with mostly young players. That might gain some players valuable experience but might hurt others by rushing them too soon. Their way, the Rays have the option of sending a top prospect like Upton back to the minors for more seasoning, which is the plan this year.

Adding veterans to the team also provides the potential for more victories now and keeps manager Lou Piniella happy. The veteran skipper, a Tampa native, was hoping the process would be a little quicker when he signed a four-year contract before the 2003 season. He has tried to develop more patience while waiting for an increase in payroll.

"The job here has been a little more difficult than I expected," Piniella said.

But Piniella said that he would stick with it, at least though 2006 when his contract runs out. He wants to win immediately as much as anyone, but he also understands the importance of developing the young players and staying within the payroll.

The Rays' payroll was a Major League-low $23 million in 2004. It has been raised to about $32 million this season and is expected to jump above $40 million next season.

"As we were told it would, our payroll has increased each of the last two years," LaMar said. "And we've gotten every indication that it's going to continue. It will increase to meet the development of our players."

According to Lamar, that method is the key to long-term success. The payroll has to increase along with the maturation of the young players so the Rays can afford to lock them up in long-term deals and still have money to go out and acquire other players to put them over the top.

Can this plan work when the Yankees and Red Sox are spending four or five times as much as the Rays?

"We truly believe it can," LaMar said. "We believe we are on the right track."