ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Five things to know about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays:
1. The intriguing thing about the Devil Rays is that they're developing a nice collection of young pieces like B.J. Upton, Jorge Cantu, Delmon Young, Jonny Gomes and shortstop Ben Zobrist to go with Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli. But they have to find some pitching. Last year's starters produced the fewest victories of any rotation in the majors (36) and tied for the most losses (70). Scott Kazmir again is the ace and the Rays have high hopes for James Shields and Jae Seo, both of whom are expected to open the season in the rotation. Beyond that, they think they have one more bit of good news: Lefty Casey Fossum is ahead of schedule following shoulder surgery and manager Joe Maddon says he thinks Fossum will be ready to take his place in the opening day rotation.
2. Aside from solving their pitching woes, the Rays also need to find a way to improve significantly on the road. They were an abysmal 20-61 away from Tropicana Field last season, including a humiliating 3-31 after the All-Star break. It was the worst road record after the break in major-league history, and the '06 Devil Rays became the first team to lose 100 games while compiling a winning record at home (41-40).
3. Akinori Iwamura, the free-agent third baseman signed from Japan, is bringing his own inimitable sense of style to the Devil Rays. Now, the club simply hopes his game can live up to it. Iwamura batted .311 with 32 homers and 77 RBI for the Yakult Swallows last season, but the one thing to watch is his strikeout total -- he whiffed often in Japan last year. He's well-liked so far in the Devil Rays clubhouse, and others have taken note of his nickname (Top Gun), sunglasses with MP3 player attached and multi-colored batting practice bats. In fact, GM Andrew Friedman good-naturedly has put a $100 bounty out on those bats -- coaches will receive a $100 bill if they break one of Iwamura's gaudy bats while throwing batting practice to him. "They look like NASCAR, like there should be some sponsorship deals all over them," Friedman says. But he isn't expecting to have to shell out much dough to his coaches. "I did a little homework before making the offer," Friedman says. "Those bats are hard!"
4. New turf will be installed at Tropicana Field before the Devil Rays open their home season, and one of the byproducts of the move, the club hopes, is that the new turf will be pitcher-friendly. "It'll certainly slow balls down," Friedman says. "I think it will help us defensively because I think our outfield, with its foot speed, will be able to cut off more balls."
5. Just because Maddon is entering the last season of his contract doesn't necessarily mean he's a lame duck. Though there has been no discussion of extending his deal, the Devil Rays hold a two-year option and are contractually obligated to make a decision in September. "A lot of that comes from (owner) Stuart Sternberg, but speaking from my standpoint, I could not be more pleased with the job Joe has done," Friedman says. "One thing we think is important is continuity, having a consistent message, having a person in that role for a long time. I felt very strongly about Joe when we hired him and I feel equally as strong about Joe today. Not only while we're rebuilding, but when we're playing championship games in October."