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03/19/08 10:00 AM ET

Can Rays live up to hype in 2008?

Tampa Bay expected to make great strides in AL East

ST. PETERSBURG -- Suddenly, the upstart Rays are media darlings based on what they have and largely on what is believed to come.

Among those anointing the Rays as such, SI.com went so far as to forecast an 88-74 finish, which would represent a 22-game improvement in the win column. Is speculation of coming success premature? Remember, this is an organization with 70 victories as the high bar for wins in a season.

Will the team be judged a disappointment if it doesn't far surpass that total? Or is the team still in a situation where improved play won't necessarily be reflected in the standings? What exactly should the next step be?

Gerry Hunsicker, the Rays' senior vice president of baseball operations, has first-hand experience from his days with the Mets and Astros when the same questions were being asked about those organizations.

"I think the next step now is watching this core group become competitive," Hunsicker said. "Up until this year, I always felt like we were running a tryout camp. We were just running kids up and down, trying to get to a point where we had enough players that showed us they could play at this level to where we felt like with adding a piece here and there, [that] this team could go to the next level. I think that's where we are now.

"What does that mean? It's always hard to quantify it in wins and losses, but that's how we're judged in this business. So for me, to take the next step up is to get to that point where you get to .500."

Hunsicker believes getting to .500 would be huge for the Rays from a psychological standpoint.

"And then once you get to .500, it's sometimes easier to keep going," Hunsicker said. "When you've been so far under .500 for so long, it's a psychological barrier. And I think to break through that barrier will be huge for this organization. So for me, from a tangible standpoint, that's the next step, to see this team take it to that level and beyond."

Left fielder Carl Crawford believes a big factor in moving to the next level will come once the composition of the roster changes from athletes to baseball players.

"There's a big difference between being an athlete and being a baseball player," said Crawford, who could be the most athletic player in the Major Leagues. "Yeah, you've got to play the game right. We've had a bunch of athletes and we've seen that didn't work. Now we're just going to try and play the game right. The little things, that's what we've been stressing. We know we're athletic, but we've got to do the little things. Play good fundamental baseball to win."

Want to talk athletes? Few teams in baseball have anybody to compare to the likes of Crawford and center fielder B.J. Upton. But gradually, the Rays have added ballplayers to the mix, such as Carlos Pena, Akinori Iwamura, Jason Bartlett and Cliff Floyd.

"We've had a lot of athletes go through here," Crawford said. "We've tried that. We did that. You can't help but be open to new things, because, obviously what we've done in the past wasn't working. Now they're coming in with new stuff for us to do. So you have to be open and embrace it. It's doing something different than what we've done in the past, and since it's different, I'm embracing it."

Hunsicker agrees with the concept of wanting ballplayers rather than athletes.

"When you're drafting amateur players, a lot of times you get enamored with tools," Hunsicker said. "How hard somebody can throw, how far somebody can hit a ball. Sometimes we don't take the athleticism of a player, or just the baseball instincts of a player into consideration.

"I do think that's one big issue that we've dealt with and we will continue to deal with here. And that is to bring baseball players into the organization. Kids that just have those instincts to play the game of baseball. Because, in the end, there's a lot of kids with great tools that never make it to the big leagues. In the end it's the baseball players that make it."

Floyd believes you can be athletic and have no baseball sense.

"That can hurt you, because you can go out on the field and not really make the right decision you need to make as a baseball player," Floyd said. "Athletic ability can take you only so far, you have to learn how to play the game to bring that together. With the knowledge of the game and put it together to play a 162-game schedule. I mean, can you get by with it sometimes? Yeah. Will it be exploited later on in your career? Yes."

Even though the Rays are an athletic bunch, Floyd believes they are headed in the right direction.

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"I think over time, we have young veteran ballplayers," Floyd said. "They've had an opportunity to get their feet wet and understand the game. They know it stinks to lose and they want to win. And I think when you make that transition, you're making yourself into a ballplayer. These guys have learned to take their athletic ability and become really good ballplayers."

Rays manager Joe Maddon believes the climate is different on the team this season.

"If you walked into our clubhouse on the very first day [of Spring Training] at the Naimoli Complex, you get a sense and feeling of something entirely different than you did the last couple of years," Maddon said. "I know I did. And a lot of people who have been around felt the same thing. It's a good thing. It's all good.

"We have to go out and win, of course. But you have to begin somewhere by making change somewhere. We've done that. We're looking forward to this season and the American League is going to tell us how much better we are than last season."

Maddon said he can visualize the day when it's August or September and the Rays are eyeball to eyeball with the Yankees and Red Sox.

"If I couldn't picture something like that, we shouldn't be doing this," Maddon said. "And I'm looking forward to that day. We have to recreate the culture here on and off the field. We're doing that right now."

Up until Opening Day on March 31, everything is purely speculation.

"When the real games start, we'll see how we play and finish games," Crawford said. "We've got to get on the field and actually show that we can win. Playing hard and doing basically what we did last year to get to that last inning where we struggled so much and see what happens then. That's going to be the sign to let us know whether this team is ready to turn."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.