ST. PETERSBURG -- Prior to the start of a 2005 game at Tropicana Field, one Rays player could be heard talking to another about a trade rumor.

"They're saying you're going to the Braves," said the one player.

The other player smiled: "Anyplace but here."

Flash forward three years and listen to the words of Carlos Pena after signing a three-year, $24.125 million deal on Jan 18.

"It's extremely exciting," Pena said. "I get to be in a place I absolutely love, around people that I love and people that I know care about me. It couldn't be any better.

"There are some good things going on [with the Rays]. You're going to keep seeing players wanting to be here. There's something in the clubhouse. It's alluring. It's contagious. It's good. I think people are going to be attracted to that."

And listen to James Shields after signing a new deal Wednesday that could be worth as much as $44 million over the possible seven-year life of the contract, if all the options are exercised and incentives reached.

"It's one of those things where I love this city, I love this organization, and I like what they're doing and I like where they're going," Shields said.

What's happened to change the mind-set inside the Rays' clubhouse? For starters, the management group headed by Stuart Sternberg has cleaned out the dead wood. In addition, players who did not want to be with the Rays are now playing elsewhere. Next, the Rays are giving every indication they want to build something special. And after two years of figuring out what they have, they are now working to keep the players they deem assets.

Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli already were signed to long-term deals. Pena and Shields both signed within the past week. No doubt the club is loading up to take care of B.J. Upton and Scott Kazmir in the future.

"We have an incredible amount of talent on our team right now as we speak," Pena said. "It is in our best interests to try to maintain these outstanding young players here in Tampa -- it's extremely important. I think when we do reach our goal of getting into the playoffs, it's going to be a very special feeling, because we know it's homegrown -- we are truly Rays."

Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said the moves they have made have been consistent with what they have been striving to accomplish the past couple of years.

"The first step is acquiring the talent, whether it's a good signing by one of our scouts like Carlos, or a Draft, or a trade of a guy in the Minor Leagues that grows up with us," Friedman said. "Whatever the case may be, we know our own players better than anybody else, and it's important for us to not only acquire top-end talent, but to be able to keep those guys in place for a number of years."

Friedman acknowledged that everything is dovetailing "into something that has been very important to us the last two years."

"Which is trying to kind of reverse the image of the Rays organization in the industry, and we feel like we've made quantum leaps in the last couple of years," Friedman said. "Our goal is to become a destination spot -- where players want to play, where people want to work."

A little good will goes a long way.

"Everything they've promised to us, they've given us," Shields said. "And now they're starting to promise us a winning team. So it's looking really on the positive side."

.500 or better? The Rays have a new shortstop and a new No. 3 pitcher in Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza, respectively. They are down one right fielder and an infielder with the departures of Delmon Young and Brendan Harris, but they are another year older and wiser, and the Rays now have the look of a team that wants to be taken seriously. Manager Joe Maddon believes in his team and the possibility of reaching .500 for the first time in franchise history.

"I think it's a reasonable goal," Maddon said. "But of course I don't want us just to stop there."

Friedman said he is "very confident that we're going to be a much better team in '08 than '07."

"Our goal is to play in October, and we will not be content until we reach that level and we're in a position where we can sustain that level for many years," Friedman said. "I'm certainly not writing off this year. We've got a very young team that's extremely talented. A lot of it depends on their continued maturation."

Maddon said he could not quantify what the changes and maturing of his team will equate to percentage-wise in the coming season. Payroll gone mad: The Rays have almost doubled their Opening Day payroll from 2007, which was $24 million, thereby representing a significantly larger increase than the 20 percent Sternberg promised.

"From the original thoughts that all of us had, we're a good bit above that number and it's just the way things worked out," Friedman said. "It's the opportunistic approach that we had this offseason."

This and that: Baseball America ranks the Rays' top 10 prospects as follows: third baseman Evan Longoria, left-hander David Price, lefty Jake McGee, right-hander Wade Davis, shortstop Reid Brignac, outfielder Desmond Jennings, righty Jeff Niemann, righty Jeremy Hellickson, outfielder Ryan Royster and righty Chris Mason. ... Triple-A Durham manager Charlie Montoyo's son has been hospitalized with a rare heart defect since his birth in October. The Rays have said they do not know if Montoyo will be with the Bulls at the start of Spring Training.