Spring highly anticipated for Rays
Returning talent as well as newcomers itching to defend AL title
ST. PETERSBURG -- Never in the history of the Rays has Spring Training been so eagerly anticipated by the team's fans.
After a 2008 season in which the underdog Rays fought off the heavily favored Red Sox and Yankees to win the American League East, Tampa Bay will move into its new Spring Training digs in Port Charlotte, Fla. And believe it, the team is loaded for bear and ready to defend its title.
Charlotte Sports Park will provide the definitive Spring Training site for Rays fans by capturing the essence of baseball's special season. Fans familiar with other Grapefruit League venues in the Sunshine State will see reminders from two popular Spring Training venues. The rich blue seating and inner-bowl area brings to mind George Steinbrenner Field, where the Yankees play their spring games in Tampa, Fla. And the Tiki Bar stationed in center field, along with the unobstructed views from every nook and cranny of the park, bring to mind Bright House Field, where the Phillies play in Clearwater, Fla.
As for the most alluring feature of the park, a 19,000-square-foot outfield wooden concourse that stretches around the perimeter of the outfield is unique to Charlotte Sports Park. And it provides a 360-degree pedestrian circulation around the ballpark, offering compelling views of the playing field and bullpens for all fans.
Setting aside, there is a lot for Rays fans to be excited about on the field as the team heads into its 12th campaign. Since Tampa Bay last took the field, the club's payroll has risen to approximately $60 million. Consider that the Rays' 2009 payroll almost triples the '07 Opening Day payroll ($24 million), and it becomes more of a testament to the organization's commitment to winning.
Tampa Bay spent most of its budget on free-agent slugger Pat Burrell, who should give the team a much-needed right-handed power bat. In addition, the team traded right-hander Edwin Jackson to Detroit for outfielder Matt Joyce.
Perhaps most soothing for Rays fans is the fact they will be able enjoy the many familiar faces, including position players Carlos Pena, Akinori Iwamura, Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Gabe Gross and Dioner Navarro, as well as pitchers Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Chad Bradford, Jason Hammel, Troy Percival and Andy Sonnanstine.
Up-and-coming Rays such as top prospect David Price, Mitch Talbot, Reid Brignac and Fernando Perez will also be found in the mix.
In addition to Burrell and Joyce, newcomers include Joe Nelson, Lance Cormier and Gabe Kapler, who hope to fill some of the gaps left by departing Rays like Jackson, Rocco Baldelli, Cliff Floyd, Trever Miller and Eric Hinske.
Pitchers and catchers report Sunday and will take their physicals that morning, prior to the first Spring Training workout in the afternoon at the complex.
Position players will report Feb. 17, and the first full-squad workout will take place Feb. 18.
Workouts are open to the public beginning Sunday -- free of charge and fan friendly. Players will be available to sign autographs at various intervals of the workouts and there will be concessions and public restrooms.
Among the battles anticipated for Spring Training are slotting in the No. 5 starter, from among the likes of Price, Hammel, Niemann and Talbot; figuring out who will play right field, between Kapler, Joyce, Perez and Justin Ruggiano; and perhaps most important, composing the bullpen from a variety of relievers.
Indeed, there is a lot for Rays fans to be excited about this spring.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.