Tampa Bay looking to narrow the gap

The Baltimore Sun

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- New Tampa Bay Rays closer Troy Percival played golf once all spring.

Percival has spent 12-plus seasons in the majors, and each spring he and a bunch of his baseball buddies hit the links after practice. But now he's in a new role: aging veteran amid players 15 years younger.

"There's a pretty good generation gap," Percival, 38, said. "I'm used to coming into spring training and you golf four or five times a week. And here they play video games. They go back to each other's houses and they have the Internet and they play each other over the Internet. I played golf once all spring."

That's been the only real adjustment for Percival, who retired because of arm pain in 2006 but made a stunning comeback with the St. Louis Cardinals last season that led to a two-year, $8 million contract with the Rays this past winter.

He was signed not only to anchor a bullpen that was baseball's worst in 2007, but also to mentor an incredibly talented group of young players who seem on the precipice of making noise in the AL East.

"He walks in here and from Day One it was like he had been a Ray his entire life," manager Joe Maddon said. "He fits in that well. He's about team. He's about winning. He's about helping."

Looking to change its culture after 10 losing seasons, the club dropped the "Devil" from its nickname and revamped its uniforms and color schemes (gone is the green, replaced by two shades of blue). It signed Percival and designated hitter Cliff Floyd, two 30-somethings with World Series rings and good-guy reputations.

"We needed it desperately. We had a very young team, and each [young player] was kind of looking to each other and it was kind of a difficult situation," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "But now that these guys have some experience under their belts, they are at a point where they are much more willing to listen. And I think it is the perfect time to bring in guys like Percival and Cliff Floyd."

Entering the spring, Percival was the only member of the Rays' 40-man roster born in the 1960s. Ten were born in the 1970s, and the other 28 were born in the 1980s, the decade in which Percival graduated from high school. "Oh, man, you hit him with that one," said James Shields, 26, who will be Tampa Bay's Opening Day starter against the Orioles on Monday at Camden Yards.

"The bottom line is, he has been great," Shields said of Percival. "We all love him here. He is great for the clubhouse, great for us."

Shields, a 12-game winner last season, is part of a talented trio that includes 24-year-old ace Scott Kazmir, who will start the season on the disabled list with a left elbow strain, and right-hander Matt Garza, 24, whom the Rays acquired this winter from the Minnesota Twins for slugger Delmon Young.

And the talented arms are still coming. The Rays have four other high-ceiling pitchers, including last year's No. 1 overall pick, David Price, who could make an impact in the near future.

They also have a burgeoning offense paced by another first-round selection, center fielder B.J. Upton, as well as All-Star left fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena, who hit 46 home runs last year after signing a minor league deal. In January, Pena, who could have been a free agent after the 2009 season, signed a three-year, $24.1 million contract to stay with the Rays through 2010. "The [free-agent] market looked great," Pena said. "But there is something to be said about what is going on here. The energy that is going on in this clubhouse, the attitude of this ballclub. ... Considering all these things, I said, 'This is the place to be.' "

It's what Friedman and Maddon are trying to build here: a new attitude, a new identity, and a place where veterans want to come and young players want to stay. For it to happen, though, this beleaguered franchise needs to start winning.

"I see guys that have been waiting for a reason to believe that they are good. I think to bring in a guy like myself or Cliff, we can say to those guys, 'You are good,' " Percival said. "'We are good.' "

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Batting order

Pos. Name

2B Akinori Iwamura

LF Carl Crawford

1B Carlos Pena

CF B.J. Upton

DH Cliff Floyd

RF Jonny Gomes

3B Willy Aybar

C Dioner Navarro

SS Jason Bartlett

Rotation

RHP James Shields

RHP Matt Garza

RHP Andy Sonnanstine

RHP Edwin Jackson

RHP Jason Hammel

*LHP Scott Kazmir

*-Will start season on DL

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