Tampa Bay Rays
SLEEPER Jonny Gomes played with two bad shoulders last season, and it killed his batting average. However, he still managed to improve on 2005's power numbers. He's healthy now, and ready to break out.
BUST Akinori Iwamura has already admitted to being tired. He may not last through the whole summer.
HITTER TO WATCH: Evan Longoria, 3B Take your pick of their enormous store of hitting prospects. Longoria is moving the fastest; he's a polished, high-average third baseman with a good glove and average power.
PITCHER TO WATCH: Jeff Niemann, RHP
If Tampa Bay's management is smart, the moment Jeff Niemann is healthy for 20 straight minutes, he'll end up in the big leagues. He's got a workhorse build, a nasty slider, and all the fragility of a former Rice pitcher.
MLB Preview 2007
FIXED He's only 25, but Rocco Baldelli's career has already taken plenty of twists and turns. He was a star for two seasons before blowing out his left knee, and just when it looked like he'd finished rehabbing, doctors had bad news: His sore right elbow needed Tommy John surgery. "A nightmare," says Baldelli, who got permission to travel with the Rays while on the DL. When he returned in early June of last year, it was as if he'd never been away. He batted .302, with 46 extra-base hits in 92 games -- and relished every moment: "It's hell not playing."
NEEDS FIXING The Rays are spilling over with young guys who can hit and run and throw. But the exchange rate for position players has never been lower. Five years ago, they could have dealt a Carl Crawford type for an ace, but now he might yield only a No. 3. So the club hopes to grow its own pitchers organically, starting with prospects Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot. GM Andrew Friedman says he'd love to see both in the rotation by July, but the Rays need them to thrive for the team to be relevant anytime soon.
The 6-foot-9 Niemann has only 108 career IPs because of injuries, so he'll start
in Triple-A. The Rays are aiming to ensure he's more Scott Kazmir than Dewon Brazelton.
Since Stuart Sternberg took control of the Rays, in 2005, he's reached out to fans with free parking and bargain-basement tix (MLB's seventh-cheapest), not to mention better lighting, new turf and videoboards for moribund Tropicana Field. The second-cheapest per-game costs in MLB are great, but until the wins start coming, Rays fans -- who have filled the Trop to only 34 percent capacity since 2001 -- likely won't either.
"The D-Rays will probably win 70-80 games this year and when their young pitching talent starts to come up to the big leagues they will be a very good team, maybe pushing 90 or so wins."