Last month I projected the Devil Rays to win 89 games this year. If my projections turn out correct (and of course they all won't) that would not get them a playoff spot, but would put them within 3 games of the best teams in the league - the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Indians, and Tigers.
Last season they only won 67 games, scoring a middle of the pack 782 runs but surrendering a league worst 944. I can rule out the offense for the source of massive improvement, I only have them scoring a few more runs in 2008. While Carlos Pena and BJ Upton may not quite hit like they did last year, Evan Longoria's bat at third improves the team, unless they send him to AAA, and Cliff Floyd at DH should be an improvement on Greg Norton.
The improvement is on the pitching and defense side, where I project the team to allow more than 200 fewer runs next season. Their defense last season was one of the worst of all time. According to the Hardball Times team page they were 142 plays (or runs, not quite sure) below average last year. Either way, it's really bad. Their defensive efficiency was .652 according to Baseball-Reference, dead last in the AL by a mile.
At secondbase, according to my TotalZone system (using the modern version, not the 1956-86 version) the top 3 players (Brendan Harris, BJ Upton, and Ty Wigginton) were 18 runs below average. The top 2 shortstops, Brendan Harris (-16) and Josh Wilson (-12), were -28 runs. The corners, Iwamura and Pena, were approximately average. The zone ratings, average between STATS and BIS, have the combined infielders at -48 runs.
For 2008 Pena stays put, and Evan Longoria is projected as an average 3B. That may be conservative, as his Baseball America prospect report page praises his defense, but as long as he's average the Rays have the gloves to improve. Upton was a poor defensive infielder at every position he tried, but will not play there again, he fits much better in the outfield. Iwamura moves to second, where I project him just a bit below average (-5). The reports on him suggest that he will be able to handle the position. The real improvement is at short, where Jason Bartlett, a fine fielder (+13 projection) takes over. That's a 3-4 win improvement just on shortstop defense.
In the outfield, Crawford, an outstanding left fielder, stays put. In center they played Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes, who were a combined -16 runs by the zone ratings and -11 by Totalzone. Upton will take over fulltime and was +6 in TotalZone, and +1 by AVG Zone rating. The rightfielders, Young and Jonny Gomes, were slightly below average by ZR and -12 runs by TotalZone. For 2008, if Rocco Baldelli is able to play he should provide strong defense in right, though Rocco is no sure thing and injuries could force Gomes and his poor glove back out there.
The outfield should improve a bit, with the (middle) infield improving massively. Altogether, I have the 2008 Rays as a slightly above average defensive team.
An improved defense will do wonders for the pitchers. Last year they got fine pitching from Jamie Shields and Scott Kazmir. I am projecting more of the same for those two. After that, the rotation was a disaster. Edwin Jackson (5.76) and Andy Sonnanstine (5.85) were bad, and Jason Hammel (6.14), JP Howell (7.59), Casey Fossum (7.70) were worse. If that's not bad enough, look at Jae Seo (8.13).
For 2008, they added Matt Garza, projected at 4.47. Sonnanstine's poor record seems out of place considering he struck out almost 4 batters per walk (97-26). Improve the defense, add some experience, and a little better luck and his projected ERA is 4.50. Edwin Jackson finished the season strong, has a great fastball, and a 4.76 projection.
The bullpen ERA was even worse than the starters, 6.16, but good news for the Rays is that bullpen ERAs have little year to year consistency. They have nowhere to go but up. They have a new closer in Troy Percival (3.90) and solid setup men in Al Reyes (3.64) and Dan Wheeler (3.65).
If they need more help in the bullpen, or if Sonnanstine and/or Jackson do not show improvement, the Rays have plenty of fresh young arms. They are (and their CHONE projections): JP Howell, 4.67, age 25; Jason Hammel, 4.70, 25; Jacob McGee 5.37, age 21; and Wade Davis, 5.38, age 22. The last two projections don't sound great, but these are young guys with great stuff and scouting reports, and the system may underrate them by regressing them too much to a minor league mean. There scouting reports should weigh more heavily than their projections, check out Baseball America for those. Finally, they have the #1 pitcher from last year's draft, David Price. He doesn't even factor into the projection, but could wind up moving as quickly through the minors as Tim Lincecum last season.
So the short answer, it's massive pitching improvement aided by massive defensive improvement. I submit that it's easier to improve a bad pitching staff with 2 guys around 3.50 and three around 6.00, than to improve a staff with 5 guys at 5.00. We'll find out. Good luck Rays, and I would be quite happy with an Angels -Rays ALCS next fall, as unlikely as that sounds.