ST. PETERSBURG -- Radical changes weren't a part of the Rays' offseason plans, and for good reason: They need to find out what they have.
Because the organization is well stocked with young prospects, spending on high-priced free agents -- though a popular move to the fans -- would not have been the prudent move.
Quality pitching drives any winning team, and the Rays have plenty of young pitching that needs to perform so the organization can gain an understanding of which pitchers they want to keep for the future. Any talk about the Rays' rotation begins with staff ace Scott Kazmir, who appears well-healed from a stiff shoulder that prematurely ended his 2006 season. The biggest challenge will be to get quality pitching from the remainder of the rotation that will include right-handers Jae Seo and James Shields, and left-hander Casey Fossum.
Seth McClung, Ruddy Lugo, Shawn Camp, and Dan Miceli will be among the familiar faces in the bullpen. If the Rays are to have any chance at winning, the 'pen must come together to offer a more consistent performance than that of 2006.
All of the pitching should benefit by an improved look on defense highlighted by newcomer Akinori Iwamura, who comes over from Japan to assume the third-base job. He brings a slick glove and a strong arm to the position.
Offensively, the Rays' outfield trio of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Delmon Young will provide much of the team's firepower. Veterans Ty Wigginton and Greg Norton will again find themselves in the middle of a lot of the offensive action. The offense has a chance to be special if Iwamura quickly adjusts to Major League pitching, and Jorge Cantu returns to his 2005 form.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Team strength: Crawford, Baldelli and Young compose what arguably is the best young outfield in the Major Leagues. While each of the three brings a quality bat and speed to the offense -- Crawford is probably the fastest player in the Major Leagues -- their contributions on defense are immense. Opposing hitters will experience a lot of frustration trying to drop a hit in between the trio. Given the state of the team's young pitching, having an above-average fielding outfield will help erase a lot of pitching mistakes.
Achilles heel: The club's bullpen should be more reliable than 2006, but there still are plenty of questions to be answered by the young group.
Top newcomer: Iwamura will bring great defense and is expected to bring a plus bat with some speed to the offense.
Ready to make the leap: B.J. Upton is ready to be a Major Leaguer. The club plans to use him at a lot of different positions, in the hopes he will relax more and make more of an offensive contribution.
On the hot seat: Cantu needs to rebound from an injury-plagued 2006 season to find his 2005 form. Wigginton and Iwamura could become the team's second baseman if Cantu does not perform.
You can bank on: Crawford. The left fielder is money. He plays the game with passion, the right way, and he's clutch. He's improved offensively each of his years in the Major Leagues.
Litmus test: The starters, after Kazmir, need to get deeper in games than five innings to keep some pressure off an inconsistent bullpen. The two are tied together -- more quality starts keeps the 'pen fresh.
Home games you don't want to miss:
vs. Toronto: April 6-8. Kazmir vs. Halladay matchup -- as good as it gets.
vs. New York: April 23-24. Yankees make their first visit of the season.
vs. Texas May 15-17. Rays shift to Orlando for an outdoors home series.
vs. Los Angeles June 22-24. Dodgers make for an exciting Interleague opponent.
vs. Boston July 27-29. Red Sox make their first visit of the season.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.