The traditional end-of-season hugs and handshakes were delivered with a bit more enthusiasm Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
The 2008 Rays accomplished more than anyone had believed they were capable of when they convened for spring training in February, and that in itself was cause for appreciation with the sting of their World Series loss to the Phillies beginning to fade.
But whenever the players and coaches looked past the rest and relaxation all are fervently anticipating, they couldn't help but be excited about what awaits them when they report to Port Charlotte in about 3 1/2 months.
"I think this club is built to win for a long time," Rocco Baldelli said. "They have a lot of the young guys signed up for a while, most of the team is young, the pitching staff's one of the best in baseball, and the defense was vastly improved from what it was before. All the ingredients are there. You never know if you're going to be able to go to the playoffs or if you'll be able to win once you get there, but the team's going to be good."
No matter what pieces are added or subtracted from the current roster in the coming months, that seems to be a safe conclusion. Of the long list of significant contributors this season, only Baldelli and Eric Hinske are free agents. They might be joined by Cliff Floyd and/or Trever Miller, depending on whether the Rays pick up the veterans' options for next year (a decision must be made by Monday).
Everyone else of consequence is under the Rays' control for 2009. That doesn't mean they'll all report to the Rays' new spring training facility in February, of course, but at least Executive Vice President Andrew Friedman and his staff will have their pick of who they want to keep around.
And when it comes to areas that need to be addressed, the list is short. The Rays figure to continue their search for an impact right-handed bat capable of playing right field, whether on a full-time basis or as part of a platoon. Another seasoned reliever also would be welcome, particularly if the Rays decide not to bring back Miller. And maybe a veteran to vie for the backup catcher's job with Shawn Riggans.
Friedman probably could find any of those pieces on the free-agent market if he so desired, but the Rays have reached this point via other avenues and there is no reason to expect them to radically change course now. A handful of their returning players, including Dioner Navarro and Jason Bartlett, are due for big raises in salary arbitration, so they will still be looking to save money.
They also will have at least one established starting pitcher in need of another role or another employer, as David Price should be pushing into the rotation in the very near future. That could lead to one of the Rays' surplus of quality young pitchers (perhaps the arbitration-eligible Edwin Jackson?) being moved to clear a spot.
However the roster shakes out, expectations obviously will be much higher in 2009 - which is fine by the Rays.
"You need a jumping-off point. You need to arrive at this stage in order to advance and become pretty significant within the game," said Manager Joe Maddon. "...The whole vibe is different. We have arrived as an organization and as a force within Major League Baseball, and our guys now have a national face, and I like that."
Status of the Rays' current roster looking ahead to 2009:
Signed Through 2009
RHP Chad Bradford $3.5 million LF Carl Crawford $8.25 million 2B Akinori Iwamura $3.25 million LHP Scott Kazmir $6 million 3B Evan Longoria $550,000 1B Carlos Pena $8 million RHP Troy Percival$4.37 million LHP David Price $750,000 RHP James Shields $1.5 millionRHPDan Wheeler $3.2 million Club Options For 2009
DH Cliff Floyd (about $3 million plus incentives or $250,000 buyout)
LHP Trever Miller ($2 million or $400,000 buyout)
Potential Free Agents
OF Rocco Baldelli IF/OF Eric Hinske
IF Willy Aybar RHP Grant Balfour SS Jason Bartlett OF Jonny Gomes OF Gabe Gross RHP Edwin Jackson 1B/OF Dan Johnson C Dioner Navarro
RHP Matt Garza RHP Jason Hammel LHP J.P. Howell OF Fernando Perez C Shawn Riggans OF Justin Ruggiano RHP Andy Sonnanstine CF B.J. Upton IF/OF Ben Zobrist