ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays embark on their third season under manager Joe Maddon, and never has the club's future looked brighter heading into the free-agent season -- despite yet another last-place finish in 2007.

While many teams need to depend on the free-agent market, the Rays have a well of young talent rising from within their Minor League system. Which means the free agents they go after will be more of the "patch a hole here and there" variety than those of a grand scale.

"We're intent on improving our club, and we've identified several areas of focus for that," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "We're going to explore all possibilities, whether they are internal improvements, upgrades via the trade market or free agency. We want to address our weaknesses with solutions that make sense both for 2008 and for the long term, and we'll be opportunistic with free agents when they fit that plan."

Right now, let's start with the starting pitchers. Maddon can only write an Opening Day rotation in pencil -- and there are some gaps. The Rays have two -- Scott Kazmir and James Shields -- who are locks. After that, there are Edwin Jackson, Andy Sonnanstine and Jason Hammel, with up-and-comers Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot knocking on the door. There are a lot of teams in baseball who should be so lucky, which translates to the concept of "why sign a starting pitcher when the market is so thin and the young starters are so thick?"

"Our primary focus will always be on building from within and using free agency to supplement our core," Friedman said. "Once we've identified a free agent as a potential fit, we intend on pursuing him, and we've already identified a few potential targets for this offseason."

Much of the 2007 problems stemmed from an unstable bullpen. On the bright side, the problems found some resolve in the second half after the starting pitching found its way. The first half of the 2007 season saw the trio of Casey Fossum, Jae Seo and Jackson -- the first-half Jackson -- more likely to throw three innings than five, which put a strain on a mediocre bullpen. But the starting staff found itself in the second half. Jackson pitched better and Kazmir, who had struggled with his control, found his groove to finish the season with 200-plus innings.

The Rays finished the season with a bullpen that saw Gary Glover, Scott Dohmann, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour and Al Reyes show some semblance of consistency. Still, some patching in the bullpen with a veteran here or there would help. So it's likely the Rays will spend some money in this area.

Other than relief pitching, two main weaknesses continue to haunt the team: shortstop and catcher.

Brendan Harris played most of the first half of 2007 at shortstop before getting a good look at second base, which appears to be more of his future -- leaving the team with a choice between Ben Zobrist and Josh Wilson to battle it out for shortstop if the Rays do not trade for one or sign one through free agency.

Hot Stove

Available free-agent shortstops include, among others, Royce Clayton, David Eckstein and Omar Vizquel. Any one of these could provide a quality stopgap until prospect Reid Brignac has the proper seasoning.

If the Rays do not sign a veteran, look for a trade, because having a shortstop who can make all the plays will lend a great strength to a young pitching staff.

Incumbent catcher Dioner Navarro had a better second half after a dismal first half, but he still leaves a lot to be desired from being a quality Major League receiver. Would the Rays consider spending for the likes of a Jorge Posada? Joe Torre is no longer the Yankees' manager and Posada lives in Tampa. Such a commitment might take the entire free-agent budget, but given the point in the team's progression, such a commitment might be the best money spent in franchise history.

One thing is for certain: the Rays aren't tipping their hands as far as free agency this early in the offseason.

"The free-agent market is always unpredictable," Friedman said. "Between the wide variety of players available and the differing priorities and resources of all 30 clubs, not to mention the trade market in action as well, there is a lot of variation throughout the winter. You can see some moves coming, but there will be surprises, too. We'll work hard to maintain a consistent focus throughout and attack the offseason with a clear plan."