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03/28/08 10:00 AM ET

Rays Opening Day outlook

Team improved in key areas while keeping dynamic lineup

The Rays are touting a new day in Tampa Bay, which is true to a large extent because -- unlike many seasons past -- the team has remained relatively the same.

What remains in place is an exciting, athletic team that has the ability to play with any team in baseball on any given night. Now the team hopes to find the consistency that defines a contending team. To that end, the Rays have improved their starting pitching, the bullpen, and the overall team defense. If ever a team was earmarked to make great strides from one season to the next, it is this year's version of the Rays.

Leading the Rays' charge is left fielder Carl Crawford, perhaps the most athletic player in baseball, followed by B.J. Upton, who plays beside Crawford in center field. Young pitching has begun to spring up from the Minor Leagues. James Shields is home grown in the Rays' farm system and will begin the season as the No. 1 starter while Scott Kazmir works to come back from a left-elbow strain. Meanwhile, the Rays have added a quality arm in the form of Matt Garza, who eventually will pitch in the No. 3 spot, but begins the season at No. 2.

The team's bullpen is much improved with the arrival of Troy Percival, as is the defense with the arrival of Jason Bartlett to play shortstop and slick-fielding Akinori Iwamura moving from third base to second base.

While there are potential problems, the upside for the Rays is higher than ever before as is their potential to win more games than any other team in Rays history.

Projected starting lineup
1. 2B Akinori Iwamura
2. LF Carl Crawford
3. 1B Carlos Pena
4. CF B.J. Upton
5. DH Cliff Floyd
6. 3B Willy Aybar
7. RF Eric Hinske
8. C Dioner Navarro
9. SS Jason Bartlett
Projected rotation
1. RHP James Shields
2. RHP Matt Garza
3. RHP Andy Sonnanstine
4. RHP Edwin Jackson
5. RHP Jason Hammel
Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Troy Percival
Setup: RHP Al Reyes
Setup: RHP Dan Wheeler
Middle: LHP Trever Miller
Middle: RHP Gary Glover
Long: LHP J.P. Howell
Calling card
The Rays use their athleticism to score runs in several different fashions. They have power in Carlos Pena, Jonny Gomes and Upton, while Iwamura and Crawford can score a lot of runs with their speed, or chase runs home with hits to the gap. To opposing teams, the Rays appear to be a fountain of youth, and that youth is no longer just athletic, they have become ballplayers who know how to play the game, which is why this team should win more games than any team in Rays history.

Achilles' Heel


The bullpen could become one of the team's strengths, but it is the team's biggest question mark entering the season. Percival is now the team's closer, which immediately improved the texture of the bullpen. But while he pitched well with the Cardinals last season after two years away from the game, there's always a question of health. If he remains healthy, the Rays' 'pen will be greatly improved by his addition; if he breaks down, the 'pen could find itself in trouble.

You'll know they're rollin' if ...
The Rays are making opposing pitchers work, taking pitches and showing a discerning eye at the plate. Such an approach will lead to more runners on base, where they can drive the defense crazy with their overall speed.

You'll know they're in trouble if ...
Their starters cannot consistently get past the fifth inning, which is what happened during the early part of the 2007 season. The relievers had to absorb the innings not pitched by the starters, which led to a tired and ineffective bullpen.

Testing, testing
After experiencing escalating tensions against American League East bullies, the Yankees, during Spring Training, the Rays will get an early test when they travel to Yankee Stadium for their second series of the season. The Rays are 6-12 against the Yankees the past two seasons at Yankee Stadium. To move up in baseball's best division, you have to beat the best. And it's especially meaningful if you do so on their turf.

Interleague Play
The Rays' Interleague schedule appears favorable this summer with trips to Florida, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. They will host the Marlins, Cubs, and Astros at Tropicana Field. So at the most, they will play three of six Interleague series against contenders.

The Bottom Line
The Rays are a young but improving team. On many nights this youth, coupled with athleticism, can make opposing teams look long in the tooth. Unfortunately for the Rays, they have not been able to find consistency in between said dazzling displays. If this year's team can find some consistency, the sky is the limit -- and at the very least the most wins in team history.

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