ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays are closer than ever to having the kind of club they feel can be competitive in the powerhouse American League East.
By the second half of the season, the Rays had in place one of the best lineups in team history. The outfield of Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young is arguably the best young outfield in baseball. Akinori Iwamura was solid at third base, Carlos Pena became a force at first and Brendan Harris emerged as a nice surprise and a quality Major Leaguer after winning a starting spot at shortstop. Harris finished out the season as the Rays' everyday second baseman.
In addition, the Rays' one-two starting punch of Scott Kazmir and James Shields gave the Rays a better-than-average chance to win two out of every five starts.
"Our everyday lineup is really good," Crawford said. "The starting pitching came a long way this season, and the relief pitching was a lot better in the second half."
2007 Rays statistical leaders
|Average: Carl Crawford, .315||Wins: Scott Kazmir, 13|
|Doubles: Delmon Young, 38||Losses: Edwin Jackson, 15|
|Triples: Akinori Iwamura, 10||ERA (starter): Kazmir, 3.48|
|Home runs: Carlos Pena, 46||ERA (reliever, min. 10 appearances): Scott Dohmann, 3.31|
|Runs: Pena, 99||Saves: Al Reyes, 26|
|RBIs: Pena, 121|
|Stolen bases: Crawford, 50|
"I like the way our guys played hard," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I think we took some big steps this season. We're headed in the right direction."
Record: 66-96, fifth in AL East.
Defining moment: It came in the second-to-last game of Spring Training, when first baseman Greg Norton hurt his knee. That opened a spot on the roster for Pena, who went on to post the best offensive year in Rays history.
What went right: Right-hander Shields and left-hander Kazmir were exceptional. Shields put in 215 innings and would have been close to 20 wins had he not endured multiple bullpen collapses. Meanwhile, Kazmir came on strong in the second half once he got his pitch counts down and was able to go deeper into games.
What went wrong: The Rays were one of baseball's best six-inning teams, but the absence of a steady bullpen wrecked many a quality start. The bullpen problem was at its worst during the first half, when the likes of Casey Fossum, Jae Seo and Edwin Jackson were just as likely to pitch two innings as five, which taxed an already mediocre bullpen by forcing them to log extra innings.
Biggest surprise: First baseman Pena originally wasn't going to be on the Opening Day roster, but Norton had to go on the disabled list -- and the rest is history. Pena established a team high in home runs with 46 and became a huge positive in the clubhouse.
Lineup: While the Rays should begin the 2008 season with the same lineup that ended the 2007 season -- third baseman Iwamura, left fielder Crawford, center fielder Upton, first baseman Pena, right fielder Young, second baseman Harris, designated hitter Jonny Gomes, catcher Dioner Navarro, shortstop Josh Wilson -- there are some wild cards in the mix. If outfielder Rocco Baldelli is finally healthy, the Rays will have to find a place for him, and with top third-base prospect Evan Longoria and shortstop Reid Brignac quickly advancing through the organization, either could jump into the fray.
Rotation: Only Shields and Kazmir are set, with right-handers Jackson and Jason Hammel both being good bets to be a part of the rotation. Contenders to make the rotation include right-handers Mitch Talbot and Jeff Niemann and left-hander David Price, the top overall pick of the 2007 Draft.
Bullpen: Right-handed closer Al Reyes should be back next season, but he wasn't the same lights-out closer in the second half that he was in the first half of the 2007 season. Right-handers Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and Scott Dohmann added some consistency to the bullpen in the second half of 2007. Maddon would like to get to where he has four dependable arms he can give the ball to late in the game with the score tied or with the team ahead by a run or two.
Biggest need: Relief pitching. The Rays' bullpen struggled throughout the 2007 season, often blowing leads late in the game. They need a veteran or two to add calm to the 'pen so the team's young starters won't get discouraged about not picking up a win after they pitch well.
Prospect to watch: Will 2007 be the year for right-hander Mitch Talbot? Word around the organization is that the right-hander has better stuff than anybody in the Rays' farm system. He only needs to work on his temperament -- he's said to be too hard on himself. Talbot could fit nicely into the Rays' revamped rotation.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.