Rays Anatomy 'Intriguing'

Trade speculation One of Maddon's biggest challenges is keeping his players focused amid the trade rumors. Lugo, catcher Toby Hall and Huff are chat-board speculation regulars. But the biggest prize in town is Carl Crawford, whose name recently surfaced in a rumored deal for Angels starter Ervin Santana.

Gomes In reality, the Crawford speculation has gotten ahead of itself. Yes, the Rays have an outfield surplus. But Baldelli just returned after missing 221 games with knee and elbow injuries. Jonny Gomes is ideally a DH, and Joey Gathright's offensive problems earned him a trip to the minors. Huff is currently playing third base, and Young and Dukes have delayed their development with off-field issues.

Crawford, 24, is a triples and stolen base machine and the "best defensive left fielder in the game today," according to John Dewan's "The Fielding Bible." He has scored 100 runs two straight years while raising his OPS from .671 in 2003 to .854 thus far this season. He is also signed to a very affordable deal that could run through 2010. The Rays would want such a talent haul in return, Crawford probably isn't even worth discussing.

If the rumors are preying on Crawford's psyche, he doesn't show it. He has 13 multiple-hit games in his last 22 starts, and he's batting .339 since Maddon moved him from leadoff to the No. 2 hole in early May.

"I'm from Houston and all we knew were [Jeff] Bagwell and [Craig] Biggio since I was a kid," Crawford said. "I definitely wanted to be one of those guys who stayed with a team the whole time. Then I got to the big leagues and I understood that's hard to do now. I'm fine with it. If the organization has other plans, I'll just have to deal with that."

A scout who follows the Devil Rays regularly describes them as a notorious first-ball fastball hitting team that wears out mediocre pitching. He also characterized the pitching as "brutal," particularly in the bullpen. Veterans Dan Miceli and Shinji Mori are on the disabled list, and with the recently acquired Tyler Walker now down with a strained right elbow, the Rays are essentially closer-less.

Management continues to monitor the progress of former Dodgers phenom Edwin Jackson, who is clocking 96-plus in Durham. The short-term plan is to have Jackson come to the majors as a reliever this season, then compete for a starting job next spring. But Friedman won't rule out the possibility of Jackson's closing games with the big club.

Even though the Rays are 12-25 in the division, Maddon likes the challenge of competing against teams with more tradition and gargantuan payrolls.

"I want us to play against the perceived best teams in all of baseball," Maddon said. "I think as we do that, it's going to make us better quicker."

Until the Devil Rays transmogrify into the real thing, file them under "intriguing." It's tough to reach your destination when each step forward comes with an accompanying step back.

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