Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 10/4/12
ST. PETERSBURG At one end of the long hallway, the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse was a strange shell of itself by late Thursday morning. Lockers had already been cleared out and scrubbed down, and only a handful of remaining players sorted through belongings to pack up and ship home. The two toddler sons of shortstop Ben Zobrist and outfielder Sam Fuld tagged along after their dads through the quiet room. Pitcher Jeff Niemann, whose season ended with the disappointment of a broken leg and then a back strain, said his goodbyes to reliever Wade Davis and others. And the shiny Gold Glove trophy of Evan Longoria the Rays star whose 85-game absence with a hamstring tear undermined the offense and season sat alone atop a stack of boxes, ready to be carted out by the busy clubhouse staff. Meanwhile, another housekeeping scene unfolded on the far end of the corridor, inside the auxiliary locker room of Tropicana Field. Rays manager Joe Maddon and vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman met with members of the print and broadcast media and fielded questions about the 2012 season that ended frustratingly shy of the post-season in spite of boasting the best pitching staff in baseball and a third-straight 90-win season. The topics ranged from whether the remarkable staff could be re-assembled next season to the offensive and defensive struggles the team endured at different stretches to what the club will be looking for in the free-agent market during the upcoming off-season. For the most part, Friedman was reluctant to provide hard-and-fast answers, given that the season has just ended and the evaluation period has yet to commence. The course of action hell ultimately take with various players whose contracts are up hinges on too many unknown factors at this early stage; it first requires intensive internal discussions and then seeing how the free-agent market begins to shake out. But one there was one thing Friedman was adamant about: The Rays will continue to build around their philosophy that pitching and defense are the essential foundational elements of the franchise. They certainly ranked as baseballs best staff in 2012 with an abundance of outstanding arms: David Price, a leading a Cy Young Award contender; James Shields, who pitched as well as anybody in baseball after the trade deadline, and the youthful brigade of Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, who took over admirably for Niemann, rookies Matt Moore and Chris Archer. Asked if the Rays hoard starting pitching rather than trade some of it to improve their weak hitting, Friedman took exception: We scored (nearly) 700 runs and had a ton of injuries to our best offensive players Weve seen very good offensive teams that cant pitch and that have no chance of winning 90 games, zero chance. We believe very, very strongly in pitching and defense. And we ended up needing all of our pitching this year, and anticipate thats how its going to be each and every year. If we ever have to go to market for pitching, we are doomed as an organization. That season you can absolutely write off. We cannot compete with other teams for it. We can get creative and compete in other areas for players in the bullpen and different offensive players and how we put them together. Starting pitching is an area that I dont want to even challenge our guys to be creative enough to find ways to get better. We have it. Its something weve nurtured. Of course, wed like to have an elite pitching staff and an elite offensive team. (But) its the interplay. We had the second-best run differential in the American League. The most important thing is how many runs you can score versus how many you allow. The Rays scored 697 and allowed 577, finishing with a run differential of plus-120 third best in the majors behind the Washington Nationals (plus 137) and Yankees (plus 136), both of whom are playoff-bound as division winners. The last team that ranked in the majors top three and missed the playoffs: the 2005 Cleveland Indians (plus 147, second best in baseball) with a record of 93-69. One thing we need to focus on is the distribution of our runs, Friedman added. Theres no real rhyme or reason. Its not like better pitchers shut us down. Its something we need to focus on and you dont want to have a knee-jerk reaction to. Were not going to be flippant about our pitching depth in that its everything to us to have five really good and the requisite depth behind it. Obviously, if something lines up that makes sense and makes us better, were going to do it. How the Rays roster will look 131 days from now when pitchers and catchers report remains anybodys guess. For now, here are some of the other subjects addressed Thursday: What was the biggest problem for the offense? Friedman: It was just a strange season. If you break it up into different parts, from the All-Star break on, we played at a 96-win pace. Before the All-Star break, we had a lot of injuries. I dont think were going to do anything this off-season thats going thats going to put us in a position to withstand losing Evan for 85 games. I dont think thats something were going to be able to accomplish. Matt Joyce. (Jeff) Keppinger. B.J. (Upton), Desmond (Jennings). You go up and down the line, and it was one of those strange things where (injuries were) so concentrated in such a short period time. We didnt have the requisite depth. So it was a strange year in a lot of ways. People focus a lot on the offense, and rightfully so. And were going to spend a lot of time thinking about, discussing and analyzing. Now its about trying to construct a team that can score runs next year. Will you look more to the higher-level free-agent market? Friedman: Look, we obviously have challenges as a market, when we compare ourselves to the teams were competing against. We dont use it as an excuse. It motivates us. Its a challenge and something that excites every one of us. And it makes the success that we have that much more rewarding. There are certain things we can do in the free-agent market, and certain things we cant. We cant compete for every single player whos going to be a free agent. But we should be experts on the ones we can compete for. And with that, theres a lot more inherent risk. ... But its incumbent upon us to find the right group and right composition to have success. Can you pinpoint some reasons the defense fell below normal Rays standards? Maddon: Missing Evan after the injury really made it a lot more difficult. We had guys playing at different spots, and we felt comfortable about them playing in different spots, i.e. Sean (Rodriguez) and Elliot (Johnson). But for whatever reason, that first half of the season we could not nail down the defense. A lot of it was throwing problems as much as anything else. But again, guys were playing spots we felt really good about them playing. And for whatever reason, they just had a tough first half. After the first half was over, we did kind of mini-spring training post All-Star break. And I thought we played much better after that, culminating in the last few weeks where the defense started looking the way it was supposed to. Its really hard to understand why some of these guys had such a hard time this year, because they are high-end defenders. Do you think you had a World Series winner with this team? Maddon: We definitely had the pitching to do that, you can see that right now. And I feel we were playing our best baseball right now. Through the end of this particular time of year, everything started coming together. We started getting some hits. The run production over the last couple of years really came up a lot. But beyond all that, the combination of everything the defense got better, the pitching had remained (strong and) the innings started to pick up again. Yeah, I really felt we could play with anybody right now. We just ran out of games, man. We ran out of time this year. Because truly, we are one of the best teams out there right now and we could have competed for the World Series title this year. Its unfortunate it unraveled the way it did. But it kind of unraveled early in the season. We were unable to pick up the offensive slack. When Evan got hurt, I thought we had enough there to pick it up. But obviously some guys didnt have the season we thought they were going to have. And that happens in this game sometimes. But I thought, and I still believe, that we do have the ability right now in that room to go and play the last game of the season this year and win it. What do you expect the payroll to be in 2013 (following an increase in 2012 to 70-million from 41-million)? Friedman: I dont know. Had I answered that last year at this point, it would have been far less than what it ended up being. I cant answer that right now. What are your plans with the coaching staff? Will they all be back? Maddon: Were going to discuss all of that stuff. Thats part of what were going to do after todays (press conference). Were going to go upstairs and talk about a lot of different things. I thought the coaching staff did a great job. I really do, he said. It goes beyond just the X's and O's of the game. Its how they interact with the group, how the players feel about them. When the guy is not having a good day, is there somebody there to pick him up? Do they listen well? Ive always thought one of the most important thing a coach does is listen. I do read a lot of different things, but it comes down to a major league player should be able to control his own destiny. Its our job to give them some proper thoughts on occasion. And I think our (coaches) do a great job with that. I just think that sometimes, honestly, coaching X's and O's regarding mechanics is totally overblown. What did you think of the scene Wednesday night with Upton, whats your plan with him going forward now that hes a free agent? Friedman: It was emotional. It really was. For everyone whos been around him, it was something going into the game, I wasnt sure quite what to expect. I thought the fans did a great tremendous job (with) the standing ovation and making him feel appreciated and rightfully so. Look, I dont know how things are going to unfold. B.J.s meant a tremendous amount to this organization. Hes been a central figure in the transformation from the Devil Rays to the Rays. Were going into the off-season and B.J. is just hitting the prime of his career. And its something hell try to figure out what makes the most sense to his family. And well try to figure out what makes the most sense and definitely reach out to (his agents). But stripping away what are the chances of this or that, last night was extremely touching and an emotional moment for all of us.
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