Maddon, Rays embrace high expectations
Pitching, health keys to reclaiming spot in postseason
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Take away Evan Longoria's 85-game absence and the Tampa Bay Rays would have won at least 95 games last season. That would have pulled them even with American League East champion New York and back to the postseason for the third consecutive October.
So says manager Joe Maddon.
It's no surprise then to him that his 2013 Rays are picked by many to win the division. In fact, Sports Illustrated this week has painted a target on their backs, predicting they'll win the AL pennant, but lose to Washington in the World Series.
The proverbial SI jinx doesn't bother Maddon one bit. He relishes it.
"I'll take it, but not the losing to Washington," Maddon says. "I think we're capable. I like expectations. It gives you something to live up to. I believe our players enjoy hearing that kind of stuff. It's a good thing."
Forget about the extra pressure. No team in the Major Leagues thrives more when stacked against the odds. Tampa Bay's formula for winning is so legitimate it's too bad the club can't bottle it and sell it.
According to Forbes, Major League Baseball is knee-deep in money. The mag states the average value of a franchise is $744 million, with the Yankees on top at $2.3 billion.
Bringing up the rear at No. 30 are the poor little Rays. The franchise is worth "only" $451 million.
That's sobering news for ownership, but certainly hasn't kept the franchise from being one of the most successful in baseball. The Rays have won 90 or more games four of the past five years with a payroll that is mere pocket change for the Yankees.
Here they are poised for another season under the genius who is Maddon and picked by one of the nation's most prestigious publications to go to their second World Series. (They lost to the Phillies in 2008).
This all started with Maddon, preparing for his eighth season, when I asked him how at this moment the outlook for 2013 compares to a year ago.
"We felt really good about the team last year also," Maddon said. "We won 90 games with all the different stuff that happened to us. Going in, we expected to do pretty well ... I believe had we not lost Longo [from April 30-Aug. 7], we would have won 95 games."
Tampa Bay was 47-27 when its All-Star third baseman was in the lineup, compared to 41-44 without him. Longoria ended 2012, batting .289 with 17 homers and 55 RBIs in 74 games.
The Rays open their season Tuesday afternoon at Tropicana Field against the Orioles, who shut the door in their face, going to the postseason last year for the first time since 1997 as one of the two AL Wild Cards.
Tampa Bay has lost a handful of players through free agency and trades, including workhorse starter James Shields and center fielder B.J. Upton.
"It's a similar outlook this year," Maddon says. "I know we've lost a lot of guys, but that happens to us on an annual basis. We're used to that stuff.
"Look at what we've done [this offseason] compared to what the other teams in the division look like. We feel equally good about being able to compete and win the division again this year. I'm going to say that every year."
Pausing a moment, Maddon adds: "I love the challenge of what we do and how we do it. We're not going to be able to outhit our mistakes, or outhit the other team nightly. We're not going to spend that dough to be that group anyway."
The Rays are built on pitching and defense. They certainly could use another impact hitter to complement Longoria, who is recovered from his partially torn left hamstring.
There's also concern -- even though the Rays are rich with young pitching, including 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner David Price -- that they'll be able to make up the 227 2/3 innings 15-game winner Shields gave them. Tampa Bay's 2012 composite pitching staff ERA of 3.19 was the best in the Major Leagues since 1990.
Speculation is that Wil Myers, obtained from the Royals in the Shields-Wade Davis deal, could follow the path of the Nationals' Bryce Harper, who was promoted from the Minors early in the 2012 season and helped his team win its division. Myers, who blasted 37 homers, drove in 109 runs and hit .314, is one of the top big league prospects. He'll open his season at Triple-A Durham.
Says Maddon: "I've always felt that it should be easier for a young player to make the team when the season is in progress as opposed to out of Spring Training."
Ask the always-positive Maddon his biggest concern as Tuesday's opener approaches, there's a long period of silence.
"Biggest concern going in?" he repeats the question. "Just making sure the starting pitchers give you the requisite number of innings that permits the bullpen to be as good as it has been in the past."
Interpretation: Replacing Shields' innings.
"You'd also have to look at our lineup against left-handed starting pitching," Maddon says. "I like it a lot versus right-handed starters. ... I think all the ingredients are necessary for being successful again this year. It's just trying to figure the whole thing out with all the new guys -- James Loney, Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson. There are a lot of new guys involved in the mix we have to get used to. That will be the interesting part of the new season."
Bottom line: Despite their financial restrictions after making the postseason three of the last five years, 2013 will be a huge disappointment, if not failure, if the Rays aren't playing deep into October.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.