Rays full of optimism, excitement

Rays eager to get started, optimistic for 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- Optimism and smiles were in abundance Friday morning when Devil Rays pitchers and catchers reported for the team's 10th Spring Training.

Nobody was smiling more than Scott Kazmir, the left-handed ace of the Rays' staff, who missed most of the second half of the 2006 season with a stiff shoulder.

"I've been looking forward to this for a while now, since I stopped throwing in, what, late August?" Kazmir said. "I feel like it's been forever since I've been on the mound. I'm anxious to get out there and give it a go."

Though the everyday players do not have to report until next week, the clubhouse had more than its share of everyday players reporting early.

"I'm eager to get going," said B.J. Upton, who enters camp with the prospect of becoming a utility man for the Rays. "After the end of the season, you get a month off -- and you're glad you get a month off. Then November and December roll around and you start getting ready again. I've been looking forward to it for about two or three months now."

The Rays' first workout will be Saturday at 10 a.m. ET at the Raymond A. Naimoli Baseball Complex located at 7901 30th Ave., North.

Even though Rays manager Joe Maddon stressed fundamentals last year in Spring Training, the Rays struggled with execution throughout the 2006 season. Maddon again will school his troops on fundamentals this spring, along with some adjustments from last season.

"We're still going to do the liberal arts thing in regard to team defenses, situational hitting offensively, situational base running -- that stuff will remain the same," Maddon said. "The difference this year is we can be more specific now that we've been with these guys for one year. I can tell what we want to work exactly with [Upton] on, or Rocco [Baldelli] on, or Jorge Cantu on. We can be more specific more than anything."

Over the winter, Maddon and company wrote down a basic outline for each player for what they believe to be each player's strong points, along with some specific short- and long-term goals.

"[We did that] so they understand exactly where we're coming from also," Maddon said. "It's a good way to do it. That way there's no ambiguities involved. Everybody knows what's going on. They know why we're making them work in this particular direction. They know there's a plan for the group, as well as for them individually."

Andrew Friedman begins his second season as the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, and he talked about the direction the team is headed.

"One of the things that was very important to us coming in was to improve our depth," Friedman said. "Obviously we had a lot of very talented players on the roster. But for us, it was about making a stronger one through 40, and we feel like we've accomplished that. We feel that in the last 12 to 15 months we've significantly improved the depth of our roster and the quality of our roster.

In order for the Rays to be successful, Friedman said they will have to continue with said improvements.

"With this young team and these talented players, just addressing the roster doesn't get at the depth we've achieved with players that aren't on the roster right now," Friedman said. "We've got a tremendous pipeline of players coming, and it's very important and it always will be in our situation -- even when we reach those levels of success we've been talking about. Depth is going to be equally as important in the Minor League level, and it's why the international program is so important, it's why we put so much emphasis on the amateur draft and player development."

Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Gerry Hunsicker, added: "When I look at this roster and what we've tried to do, I think that versatility and depth are the two buzzwords here. We've got a lot of versatility, especially in the infield, for Joe to manage."

The Rays' first full-squad workout will be Thursday, when the organization welcomes 58 players to camp (including 18 non-roster invitees), the fewest players invited to any Major League camp in the club's 10-year history.

The team will then move its Major League camp to Progress Energy Park, Home of Al Lang Field (180 2nd Ave SE), where the Rays will play 15 home games this spring, beginning March 2 against the Yankees. The Rays will finish the exhibition season with a game against the Mets at Tropicana Field on March 31.

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