Draft prep: Tampa Bay Rays outlook

The rumor is true: Devil is no longer associated with Tampa Bay. True, they shipped out Elijah Dukes to Washington last season, but it's their name that they removed Devil from this past winter. The Tampa Bay Rays should have officially changed their name to the Tampa Bay Up-and-Coming Rays, since that's how fans and the media usually refer to them. Things are no different this season, since most of their stars were born during the Reagan administration.

The offense improved from last in '06 to 15th in '07, and their 782 runs scored was a record in the franchise's 10-year history. But they shipped former No. 1 overall draft pick Delmon Young off to Minnesota for pitching help in the form of Matt Garza. Young was second on the team in RBI (93), but they're hoping that perennially injured outfielder Rocco Baldelli will be able to stay somewhat healthy enough to play right field. With Baldelli in right, B.J. Upton in center and Carl Crawford in left field, the Rays are essentially putting three center fielders onto the playing field at one time, which will certainly help their pitching staff.

Upton is coming off a 20-20 season and 30-30 isn't too far off now that he has finally put his defensive shortcomings behind him at shortstop and third base. As the team's second baseman -- and now center fielder -- he was able to concentrate more at the plate.

Crawford's power fell off a bit, but he still stole at least 50 bases for the fourth time in his past five seasons. And his batting average climbed (up to .315 last year) every season he has been in the majors. He has yet to come through with a 200-hit season, but he's still just 26 years old with a great future ahead of him. If he gets traded midseason, as rumors would have us believe, his Fantasy value would probably climb back into first-round status.

Only four hitters smacked over 45 homers last year -- Alex Rodriguez (54), Prince Fielder (50), Ryan Howard (47) and Carlos Pena (46). Which one of these names doesn't belong? Regardless of whether he belongs in that group, Pena became one of the biggest sleepers of the season, and he parlayed that into a three-year contract in the offseason. He has plenty of capable tablesetters in front of him, so reaching 100 RBI is a likely possibility again. But 40-plus homers could be too much to expect for a second straight season.

Evan Longoria has a chance to become the AL's version of Ryan Braun. In his first full season in the minors, Longoria hit a combined .299 with 26 homers, 95 RBI and 97 runs scored, nearly earning a September promotion to the majors. The Rays are expected to announce soon whether he will start the year with the big club, or get more seasoning on the farm. Either way, you'll want to grab him in mixed drafts -- especially if you can afford to stash him as a reserve.

The pitching staff also holds a lot of promise, but with the worst ERA in the majors last season (5.53), it's difficult to think they could be much worse. James Shields joins Scott Kazmir as Fantasy viable pitchers that should be picked up in mixed leagues. Jake Peavy needed an extra start on the end of the season to pass Kazmir as the majors' strikeout king. Kazmir had trouble with his pitch counts once again and rarely pitched more than seven innings (just twice all season).

Shields has mastered the change-up and only 12 other pitchers had more strikeouts than his 184 last year. His control is uncanny, allowing only 36 walks last year -- the lowest number among any pitcher with at least 110 strikeouts.

Garza went 5-7 with a 3.78 ERA in 15 starts last season. While he's the third-best starter in this rotation, he still won't come through with many wins, so consider him a better AL-only draft pick this spring.

Outside of Longoria, Reid Brignac and David Price represent the best in the minors for Tampa Bay. They are two players in a large group of solid prospects that should have city officials considering changing the team name to Rays of Hope.

Spring position battles Closer -- Troy Percival vs. Al Reyes
The bullpen was bolstered with the signing of Percival, who will close for the Rays. The Angels' all-time saves leader comes back to the AL after a successful comeback in the Cardinals bullpen last year. Reyes had an excellent season, posting the fifth-highest total in saves in team history (26), but he had a 5.86 ERA in the second half. He likely drops back an inning, along with Dan Wheeler. This is a much better bullpen than it was at this time last spring.

SPs No. 4 and 5 -- Andy Sonnanstine vs. Edwin Jackson vs. Jeff Niemann vs. Jason Hammel
If none of these arms get traded for outfield depth, they'll keep rotation spots warm until more talented prospects arrive possibly by July. Jackson is still a young man (24) and Niemann might finally prove his worth. These are all AL-only options for the most part.

Tampa Bay Rays Outlook
Projected lineup Pos. Projected Rotation
1 Akinori Iwamura 2B 1 Scott Kazmir LH
2 Carl Crawford LF 2 James Shields RH
3 Carlos Pena 1B 3 Matt Garza RH
4 B.J. Upton CF 4 Andy Sonnanstine RH
5 Rocco Baldelli RF 5 Edwin Jackson RH
6 Jonny Gomes DH Alt Jeff Niemann RH
7 Evan Longoria 3B
8 Dioner Navarro C Top bullpen arms
9 Jason Bartlett SS CL Troy Percival RH
Top bench options SU Anthony Reyes RH
R Cliff Floyd OF RP Dan Wheeler RH
R Joel Guzman INF RP Gary Glover RH
Rookies/Prospects Age Pos. 2007 high Destination
1 Evan Longoria 22 3B Triple-A Majors
Baseball America says elite talent might be opening day 3B, wow!
2 David Price 22 LH SP College High-Class A
Top draftee should be able to arrive quickly and dominant early.
3 Jacob McGee 21 LH SP Double-A Triple-A
Knockout stuff gives him chance to be Fantasy superstar soon.
4 Wade Davis 22 RH SP Double-A Triple-A
He's one of the best of slew of a prospects nearly ready to make it.
5 Reid Brignac 22 SS Double-A Double-A
Baseball's top shortstop prospect has door open for him in 2008.
Best of the rest: SP Jeff Niemann, SP Will Kline, OF Sergio Pedroza, SP Chris Mason, SP Mitch Talbot, SP Jeff Houser, SP Wade Townsend, SP Heath Rollins, OF Justin Ruggiano, OF Desmond Jennings, 1B Joel Guzman, OF Ryan Royster, C Mike McCormick, SP Nick Barnese, SP Josh Butler, RP Jeff Ridgway, P Matt Walker, SP Dale Thayer, C John Jaso, OF Fernando Perez, SP Jeremy Hellickson, 2B Elliott Johnson, C Shawn Riggans, SP Jonathan Barratt, 1B Chris Nowak, OF Shaun Cumberland, RP Evan Meek.

You can e-mail your Fantasy Baseball questions to dmfantasybaseball@cbs.com. Be sure to put Attn: Rays outlook in the subject field. Please include your full name, hometown and state. Be aware, due to the large volume of submissions received, we cannot guarantee personal responses or answers to all questions.

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