ST. PETERSBURG - Finally, it's time to get going.
The endless preamble of spring training has officially come to an end, with the Rays boarding a plane to Baltimore this afternoon and gearing up for Monday's opener.
Though the Rays have had some setbacks (see: Scott Kazmir, Rocco Baldelli) since pitchers and catchers reported on Valentine's Day, this looks like a major-league team. And it played like one in amassing by far the best Grapefruit League record in franchise history.
How do the 2008 Rays shape up heading into Opening Day? Let's take a look:
Starting pitching: The loss of Kazmir, who doesn't seem likely to return before late April, undoubtedly is a big blow to the group. But the Rays feel good about what they've seen from James Shields and Matt Garza this spring. Garza in particular was tested just about every time he took the mound, starting five road games before pitching in the Al Lang Field finale and thus seeing just about every opponent's best lineup. Between those two and Andy Sonnanstine's work in March, the Rays hope they'll be able to hold down the fort with Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel until Kazmir returns.
Relief pitching: More than any other group, it's almost impossible to get a feel for relievers during spring training because the majority of their outings are pre-planned and structured - the opposite of their regular-season job description. Nonetheless, the Rays rightfully feel far more secure about opening the season with this veteran-laden group than they did about last year's crew. It will just be a matter of watching how Troy Percival, Al Reyes and the rest react to a regular-season workload.
Offense: The Rays' lineup should stack up well against the competition, with an imposing top four of Akinori Iwamura, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton. The key will be getting production out of the bottom half. Dioner Navarro and Jason Bartlett won't be counted upon as heavily for their bats, but they could make a big difference if they hit.
Defense: Much, much better. Even though the Rays aren't as good in right field with Delmon Young gone, the Bartlett-Iwamura combo in the middle of the infield should make a huge difference. The same goes for Upton in center field as he continues to grow into the position. The Rays will be weaker at third after sliding Iwamura over, but he'll get a lot more action at second.
Intangibles: This team reported to camp brimming with self-belief, and it hasn't waned, though the Rays clearly are ready to throw off the drudgery of spring training and see what they've really got when it counts. Don't underestimate the importance of the Rays truly believing they'll win most of the games they play; that confidence hasn't been evident in the past, and you've seen the results.
A prediction, if I must: 80-82, fourth place in the AL East