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Bright Rays

Sand always was a possibility, but the best way to get buried last year was playing on the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays blew 15 games in the ninth inning or later. These memories are brought up in conjunction with sportsbooks beginning to release regular season baseball ‘over/under’ win totals.

Expect Tampa Bay’s win total to be in the range of 68-74 victories. Anything under 74 wins is a worthwhile investment.

Yes, I realize the Rays have finished last in the American League East nine of the past 10 years. I’m not saying they are even going to scare the Red Sox or Yankees.

But enough parts have been assembled where the Rays can do better than finish eight games below .500.

There’s a big bat at first, maybe the fastest outfield in baseball, a much upgraded bullpen and strong top of the rotation starters.

Tampa Bay has never had three starters the quality of Scott Kazmir, James Shields and newly acquired Matt Garza. We know how good Kazmir and Shields are. The Ray had a winning record in games started by Kazmir and Shields.

A key is Garza, the former No. 1 pitching prospect of the Minnesota Twins. He was 7-3 with a 3.13 ERA last year when not pitching in the hitting-friendly Metrodome.

The Rays may have had the worst bullpen in history last year. It can’t be worse this season. On the contrary, it looks much better. Troy Percival is the new closer after proving he was healthy last season while performing well for St. Louis.

Percival brings experience and credibility. He’s held opponents to a .186 career batting average. Al Reyes was miscast as a closer. He’s better as a setup man. Dan Wheeler, brought in from Houston, is a respectable setup man, too.

First baseman Carlos Pena finally lived up to his hype, slugging a team record 46 homers and driving in a Tampa-best 121 runs. He’ll have plenty of RBI opportunities with speedy Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Akinori Iwamura hitting in front of him.

You would be hard-pressed to find a faster outfield trio than Crawford, who has more steals during the past four years than anyone else in the American League, Upton and Rocco Baldelli. Crawford has improved his batting average during each of his first six seasons. Those three are going to track down a lot of fly balls in the outfield.

The farm system is good. Catcher Dioner Navarro, who had the third-best slugging percentage of any catcher following the All-Star break, and third baseman Evan Longoria are excellent young talents.

I’m not a fan of manager Joe Maddon. Too many bizarre and short-sighted moves on his part. However, the ownership that took over three years ago has proven solid. There’s talent in the farm system. It has already started to blossom and could really become ripe in two-three years.

In the meantime, the Rays have improved enough to make a serious run at .500. That’s enough to cash on this prop.

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