Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 12/6/11
The way the Bucs and Lightning are playing these days, it's hard not to let your thoughts drift to late February when Rays pitchers and catchers arrive in Port Charlotte for the start of spring training. At least one Tampa Bay pro team has an intriguing outlook right now, even if it's not playing any games. Coming off their amazing September playoff surge and the disappointment of a first-round loss to Texas, the Rays will head into the 2012 season with the reigning AL Manager of the Year, an abundance of pitching riches, a fortified situation behind the plate and a swirl of unanswered questions that could determine their fate. Who'll start the season at shortstop? Will standout 2011 free-agent and future Hall of Famer Johnny Damon return to the roster as DH? Or will executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman who officially will be staying with the Rays and not pursuing the Astros GM job in his native Houston go looking for other free-agent talent to add some oomph to the offense, such as A's slugger Josh Willingham? That's one of the rumors sweeping the Winter Baseball Meetings in Dallas this week, though whether the Rays would be able to afford a guy who hit 29 homers last year (and has exceeded 21 four times in eight seasons) is another matter. Friedman wasn't commenting, per his policy, but there was still plenty to talk about. And manager Joe Maddon sporting a new brown-hair look after wearing his locks sandy blonde in 2011 did just that with the national baseball media in attendance, addressing a wide range of topics pertaining to the 2012 Rays. Maddon's biggest point of all: His belief that the team doesn't need any major tweaking in order to have a good shot at returning to the playoffs again. "We were just sitting upstairs doing the meetings right now and it's incredible the amount of tightness on the wish list," he told reporters. "A lot more comfortable with the team coming back, got a lot of young guys with experience based on last year at the same time. "Primarily, like I said, our wish list is a lot smaller (than last year). The meeting sets up a lot different, but we also believe we have a pretty good chance of repeating and going back to the playoffs next year. And with that, if we make the right choices in this offseason and I have a lot of faith in our guys upstairs that we will then we have a pretty good chance of going back to the playoffs again." Maddon stressed that he's not concerned with the club's small payroll in pursuing free agents simply playing the game the right way. "I know our payroll is in the 40 million area; I don't worry about stuff like that," he said. "I've said that in the past and I really mean that. Regardless of our payroll number, it's up to us to put a good fundamental team on the field. When you have a team that can pitch and play defense every night, we have a pretty good chance of winning. I felt like a couple years ago when all this stuff started to break, no more enhancement drugs as an example, leveling the playing field in that matter, I thought the team that plays better baseball has a better chance of winning, and not because you can go out and buy something that you don't have. With us we have a lot of good young hungry players, and I know we play the game properly." The Rays have already addressed one issue with the addition of veteran Blue Jays catcher Jose Molina, known for his excellent defense and solid bat a distinct upgrade from Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso. Another area in need of improvement is shortstop. Defensively the Rays were strong there, but they produced the lowest offensive numbers in the majors last year with Reid Brignac (.193) and Sean Rodriguez (.223) sharing the job. Maddon was impressed with Rodriguez's play at short, when he was called upon to shift over from his normal spot at second, and indicated the current thinking is that the two will be battling it out for the starting job in camp. "That's good, the shortstop situation with Sean and Reid," he said. "I've talked to both of them this offseason actually. What we wanted to do was have some conversations at the end of last season, but fortunately we made the playoffs at the last moment. So I've called them both and given them both an idea of what we're thinking about going into this offseason. So it's an open competition is what it is. "I thought Sean did really well at the end of last year. Sean probably exceeded our expectations what he's going to be able to do defensively. (Offensively) I think there's a lot of room for improvement there, too. But Sean is a wonderful baseball player and that's why we love to have him on the field. Reid one of the better young defenders, I think, at shortstop in the game. Obviously did not have the offensive year that we were looking for, so he needs to really pick up there. . . . They're both aware that they'll be battling it out for that job in spring training." Though he'd like better productivity at the plate from his shortstops, Maddon doesn't want to sacrifice strong defense to get it. "Our template indicates if we play great defense and pitch well, we're going to win around 90-some games and have a shot at the playoffs," he said. "Now, if we don't pitch well or play defense like that and hit, I don't know, 15 or 20 more home runs, I don't know if we're going to be able to prevent enough runs to overcome that slight uptake in the offense. I would much rather that we be identified and continue to nurture being this defensive team with great pitching. That to me is the one that permits us to do what we did last year." Less certain is the fate of incumbent DH Damon, though Maddon sounded as if he'd love to have him back. "Again, those are questions we're going through right now," he said. "Johnny Damon, I've talked about it before, as advertised: wonderful clubhouse guy, true professional, somebody that does fit in with our culture well. But we're not there yet to decide whether John is coming back or not, but he's definitely in the process." The Rays' strength has always been, and remains, their starting pitching arms. And now in addition to James Shields, David Price, Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis impressive newcomers Matt Moore and Alex Cobb made strong cases to contribute to the rotation. The right-handed Cobb is coming off surgery that cut his promising season short, and lefty Moore tantalized the Rays and their fans with a standout job down the stretch and in the playoffs. "We just have to figure out Matt and Alex Cobb," Maddon said. "Everybody talks about Matt, not as many people talk about Alex Cobb. He's potentially a very good major league starter. I don't have an answer for you yet. It's obviously a wonderful problem to have. We'll continue to filter through it as the season conditions." Still, conventional wisdom is that the Rays are in position to trade one of their starters to bolster the team offensively. "You probably would go in that direction, one of the current starters, those that had been there, if we chose to go in that direction," Maddon remarked. "Obviously I think our starters are very popular within this building right now, and that's pretty cool. But again, you feel like you have some depth, and depth can go away very quickly if you're not careful. We are built on pitching and our defense, so these are things we've got to be very concerned and careful with as we make those decisions." Would he be surprised if all seven pictures showed up in camp Feb. 20? "You know, a little surprised, not overwhelmingly surprised," he said. "It could happen. . . . We're like everybody else. We come here to do something that's going to help us. At the end of the day, if it's not, then you keep these guys, that's not a bad thing, either. "We just have to pick these other couple spots up that we need to fill out the group, fill out the batting order again while we're maintaining our defense, and having those arms." Those arms give Maddon a sense of hope game to game. "Every night you walk out as the Rays' manager and you walk out on the mound, you feel pretty good about the potential results," he said. "Not everybody can say that."
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