Don't count out the Rays just yet
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla.
If we have Yankee Universe and Red Sox Nation taking over the Sunshine State at this time of year, then Charlotte Sports Park would be . . .
Whatever you want to call it, it's remote and relaxed - although, to be fair, the place fills up pretty well during Grapefruit League games - and it houses a unique baseball entity.
Only here can the defending American League East champions carry a gigantic chip on their collective shoulders.
"We lost some guys, but we still have some guys to fill in the gaps," Tampa Bay centerfielder B.J. Upton said Friday morning. "I think the biggest thing is losing those faces, but people want to write us off."
"Really?" I responded. "I'm from New York, and I would never write you guys off."
"Yeah," Upton said, smiling, "we like being the underdogs."
The Rays rode out a tumultuous offseason, losing face-of- the-franchise Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Peña, closer Rafael Soriano and six other relievers to free agency. They also traded shortstop Jason Bartlett to the Padres and starting pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs.
Yet if you thought they were going to use 2011 as a complete write-off and reboot, the Rays dispelled that notion when they signed free agents Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to one-year contracts as a package deal from agent Scott Boras.
Nevertheless, Tampa Bay will enter the season with an Opening Day payroll of about $41 million, an enormous drop-off from last year's $73 million. The Red Sox, meanwhile, figure to be near $170 million after acquiring Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and others, and the Yankees will approach their standard $200 million.
"In spite of winning the division title, you come out the next season automatically being the underdog, and it's all about dollars spent," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And we don't look at it that way.
"We've never been about talking about who makes the most money. I've never seen a dollar bill throw a strike or hit a homer or whatever.
" . . . Of course, being able to spend large globs of money, you might be able to buy one or two pieces. Obviously, we'd love to be able to do that. I'm not denying that. But at the end of the day, we've got to take what we can do and, regardless of dollars spent, play the game right."
With David Price, James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and rookie Jeremy Hellickson, they have a starting rotation that potentially can be the division's best. Damon, 37, and Ramirez, who turns 39 in May, have to help replace Crawford's run production.
Until the Rays resolve their stadium issue, they won't be able to afford elite players in their prime. As Damon said of his new teammates: "They see what their good friend Carl Crawford was able to do, put together a pretty good career. The payday could be awesome. These guys know it. It probably won't be here, but it'll be somewhere."
Nevertheless, the Rays have managed to stay in contention - despite their massive financial disadvantage - because they own an outstanding record regarding kids on the way up (Price, Evan Longoria) and buy-low veterans (Soriano, Joaquin Benoit).
"We have a very solid team," said Price, the staff ace.
Maddon must rebuild the bullpen pretty much from scratch; he anticipates taking the duration of the season to figure it out. In an intrasquad game Friday morning, the manager emphasized offensive fundamentals.
There's always much work to do when you're David taking on two Goliaths. But the Rays seem to like working peeved.
"This division got very tough. I think the Blue Jays and Baltimore got better," Damon said. "Hopefully, at the end of the day, we can say that Tampa Bay got better, too."