PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. The sun beat down from a brilliant blue sky late Monday morning at Charlotte Sports Park. With a light breeze blowing, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon and baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman settled into their stools on the outfield deck, an expanse of green grass just over the shoulders.
The picture-perfect scene virtually shouted "play ball."
In fact, better baseball weather couldn't have been scripted for the annual press conference to usher in the start of another Rays spring training camp.
A day before the first official 2012 workout for pitchers and catchers, Maddon and Friedman met the media and fielded questions about the forecast of their baseball team, already drawing some decidedly sunny national prognostications as the team to beat in the heavyweight AL East.
Contrary to their underdog status of a year ago, expectations for this year's Rays are running high around the country. They're stocked with standout starting pitchers. The defense should remain among the best in baseball. Young Tampa Bay veterans are continuing to mature into better ballplayers. And the power potential has been ratcheted up a few notches with the free agent acquisitions of former Tampa Bay slugger and first baseman Carlos Pena and power-hitting DHoutfielder Luke Scott.
Maddon, for one, embraces the early assessment of his team and hopes his players to do the same.
"I'll talk to the pitchers and catchers tomorrow, and then, of course, with everybody when they come in," he said. "I'm all for it. I like the idea of the expectations being raised a little bit. I like the idea of people wanting to include us in that kind of a discussion. I want our players to like it, too. It's more about managing expectations this year as opposed to trying to build some. And I'm very good with that. That's the position you want to be in on an annual basis."
"Andrew had himself a great offseason, combined with all the guys we have coming back," he added. "It's really exciting, man. I'm pumped about this, and so is everybody else. It's not anything to get haughty or big-headed about. It's nice. It's good to be in that position, and so it's up to us to treat it with the proper respect."
Last season, the Rays reached the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, but it took a record-setting September surge and a comeback for the ages in Game 162 to clinch the AL Wild Card spot. For the next six weeks, Maddon plans to harp on the importance of starting fast, something the Rays failed to do in losing seven of their first eight games last year.
After two straight eliminations by Texas in the American League Division Series, the Rays head into camp with the goal of not simply returning to the playoffs.
"We've got to get there," Maddon said. "It would be very disappointing to not make the playoffs, and it would have been last year. We're at the point now that every time we show up here, our goal is to get back to the playoffs and our goal is to win the World Series. It's got to be."
Here are some other highlights from Monday's session:
On comments by Yankees GM Brian Cashman that his club eased up at the end of the 2010 season to rest players, rather than try to win the division:
Friedman: "I think we're focused on 2012 and the grind that is the American League East. There's no point in going back on that. Obviously, we read it, but our focus is forward."
Maddon: "Yeah, the banner's up there. That's cool."
On whether the team will have learned from the 2009 drop-off after the World Series season of 2008:
Friedman: "There aren't many guys here from that. But the thing I want to say is first off, when you step back and take a big-picture view, for us to have those expectations is a great thing. It's never a problem. It's never something you shy away from. I think the bigger part is that the only way it can become a problem is if you take on the mentality of, We're that good' or We don't have to work.'
"All offseason, when I was sitting in my office and would look out on the field, there'd be anywhere from eight to 20 guys out there working out three times a week for the entire offseason. And it really speaks to the culture we've created and the process that's in place. So whether there are extremely high expectations or not, I don't think it phases our guys. They're focused on the process and how they all fit together as a 25-man roster to compete and win on a nightly basis. With the culture Joe's created in the clubhouse and with our coaching staff, it's not a risk factor or issue that I think it might be other places."
On the increased power potential with this lineup:
Maddon: "It's something we identified and wanted to do something about. It's exciting. The biggest obstacle or task will be to develop a batting order and having this batting order flow based on these new names. It's got a chance to be very thick from one through nine on a nightly basis. Any time you can add Carlos' power and Luke Scott's power, (it's good). And then you have the other guys that are coming on the Matt Joyces of the world, who probably has not reached his power potential yet in the major leagues; the fact that Desmond Jennings showed what he did last year; and Longo. He looks great right now, and B.J. (Upton).
"I've talked about this in the past couple of years that our power potential has been underestimated a bit among the guys who've been there. So I think you're going to see guys who are now more veteran, and have a better understanding of what they're doing at the plate, you're going to see more power out of them. And they'll be accented with these other two guys."
On the fact that they're aren't that many position battles heading into spring training:
Friedman: "There aren't necessarily a lot of jobs to be won, short of injuries. There's going to be some competition. But I think more than last year as we're going through our meetings and talking through the 59 guys in camp the thing that struck us is we have more depth this year. So we're going to send guys to Triple-A at the end of this camp and throughout this camp who are major league players. That's always a good thing, because as everybody knows it takes more than 25 guys to compete in this division. Often, you lean on 30-35 guys in this division."
On what they're looking to see in the shortstop battle between Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez:
Maddon: "A lot of it has to do with under-the-hood kind of stuff the different things we want to see each guy make improvements with. The kind of stuff we'll talk to them about within these meetings we'll have with them over the next couple of days, regarding becoming more complete baseball players. Look, if somebody hits like .350 and the other guy hits .220, that's not necessarily going to be the reason why we choose one guy over the other.
"There's different things we've been looking at, whether it's talking about physical mechanics, or baseball stuff. We're looking at a variety of different topics with each guy, so as it moves forward, please don't just look at a batting average and think that this guy's winning the war right now . With us, as you very well know by now, it's about defense. Obviously, we talk a lot about how much we like Reid, no question. We thought Sean did a really good job when we gave him the opportunity at the end of last season. So there's a lot of different things to look at and balance out."
On whether lefty phenom Matt Moore might start the season in Triple-A so the club can better manage his inning count:
Friedman: "There's always concerns when a guy is that young and getting into the grind of a major league season for the first time. It's definitely something we're going to be very aware of. And whether he starts the year in the big leagues or Triple-A has yet to be determined."
On the importance of getting off to a good start:
Maddon: "(It's) the one thing I will talk about a lot. I think that's really paramount again for us. Last year, we proved to ourselves that we can come from behind and win, and that's nice. But it's much better to do it from the other side. You can't always count on a bunch of circumstances working in your favor at the end of the season because you dug yourselves a hole."
On maintaining the Rays' high level of defense from 2011:
Friedman: "Not only did we have gifted defenders, (it was) the way we utilized information, the way we were active with our positioning. I think we're going to have to continue to do that. We caught line drives at a very, very high rate last year. A lot of that gets to positioning and ability. It's always difficult to say, Oh, we'll definitely exceed that.'
"More that that, it's that we have really good, gifted defenders around the diamond. It's part of the fabric of the organization, part of our DNA. Something we talked about at the end of last season was if we could improve our offense, while maintaining our high level of defense. It's easy to say, more difficult to do. (But) we think we have improved our offense and are going to maintain the high level of defense."
On whether the Rays might indeed keep all their starting pitchers, as opposed to trade one as has been speculated in recent months:
Friedman: "We don't view it as having three first basemen. When you have seven or eight starters, over the course of 162 games, if you go back looking at 2008, we've used a minimum of seven and in one year, nine starting pitchers. So with the razor-thin margin in this division, and what can be the difference between moving on and staying home, it's something we're very mindful of.
"We don't look at it as having an over-abundance of starting pitching. If we were able to maintain that, while addressing our weaknesses, that was definitely ideal. And as far as phone activity and conversations (about possible trades) if there's a way for us to improve this roster, we're going to be aggressive to do so."