The shoe may fit, but Rays no Cinderella
Young, talented core has them poised to be competitive for years
ST. PETERSBURG -- Everyone believes Disney is the proper place for the Rays' 2008 story. The title would be something along the lines of "The Little Team That Could," and an actor who's part Tom Hanks, part Wilford Brimley could play Joe Maddon, the cuddly manager who assembles a rag-tag team of nobodies and turns them into champions.
Alas, that's Hollywood and the Magic Kingdom's business. The Rays' business takes place between the lines, which is where 100 wins were harvested this season primarily because they have a talented team, not because they can pull a rabbit out of a hat.
"What do you expect," Matt Garza said. "Everybody is always looking for that next Cinderella story. You can give us that title, but this isn't a fluke.
"Boston wins with pitching and defense, it's called tradition. We win with pitching and defense, it's called a Cinderella story. So you go figure it out."
Carl Crawford smiled when asked about the perception that the Rays' season is some kind of miracle.
"There's a lot of talent in this room," Crawford said. "We don't think it's a miracle. We play with each other. We know what each other can do. We just have to show everybody else. We believe in each other, and we think that is going to take us far."
Veteran Cliff Floyd first came to the Major Leagues in 1993 and has seen a lot of talent come and go during his career. He believes the Rays have had the talent for years, but it had to mature in the right way, which he said the Rays' management has allowed. He also believes teams don't win the American League East without having talent on their roster.
"Please, ask around," Floyd said. "Call the other general managers and ask them what they think. And if they say anything other than this team is stacked, not just for this year but years to come, then maybe they shouldn't be a GM."
|"They've got a good young team. And this isn't going to be a one-year thing. They're going to be there for a while."|
-- Braves utilityman|
Greg Norton, on the Rays
"I think it's because we believe," Upton said. "We believe we can win every game, and we expect to win every game. So any time you put that along with the talent we have with this team, it can take us a long way."
The Rays, with an average age of 27.4 years, are the fourth-youngest team in postseason history. They have some power, but are generally a line-drive-hitting team. They get on base, run the bases well and pressure opposing staffs, while relying on their starting pitching, bullpen and outstanding defense to get the job done.
Picking up shortstop Jason Bartlett solidified an infield defense that had been a glaring weakness for Tampa Bay last season. Bartlett's contributions were such that he was voted the team's Most Valuable Player by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
AL Rookie of the Year Award front-runner Evan Longoria gives the Rays needed power at third base, and combined with slugger Carlos Pena, he provides the team a formidable one-two punch in the middle of the order.
Garza's acquisition has been critical, as the right-hander gives the Rays another frontline starter behind Scott Kazmir and James Shields in a rotation that averaged 180-plus innings and 12.5 wins. Solid starting pitching played an integral role in the bullpen's reversal of fortune.
During the 2007 season, the Rays had 52 losses in games they had once led. That stat could be traced to an equally startling one: the bullpen's 6.16 ERA -- the highest in the Majors in 50 years. Fast forward to '08, and the revamped bullpen took 2.5 runs off its ERA.
"It's been a great story, when you look at where they've come from and how hard they've worked," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "[Maddon has] done a great job, as has his entire staff. You know when you play them, they're going to play hard, and they have a lot of ability."
Void of any superstar signings or blockbuster midseason trades, the Rays have built a team small on money, but big on results.
"They've got a good young team," said the Braves' Greg Norton, who once played for the Rays. "And this isn't going to be a one-year thing. They're going to be there for a while."
Mariners coach Lee Elia, who spent three years working in the Tampa Bay organization, agreed that the Rays' rise from obscurity is no fluke.
"I never dreamed that it would happen this quickly," said Elia, who left the club following the 2005 season. "But another part of me believed that around this time, with the direction the organization was going, I thought it could be an 81-win ballclub.
"They have done way better than that, and they'll be around for awhile. This is not a mistake."
Maddon allowed that if someone were to look at where the Rays came from to where they are today, it would be natural to attach a Cinderella label to the group.
"That's just an easy route to go," Maddon said. "For me, if you dig a little deeper, you do see a talented group of guys."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.