PORT CHARLOTTE -- Last year when Joe Maddon gave his annual Rays State of the Union message to kick off spring training, he came up with his infamous line: “Reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
This year, armed with a roster that has been bolstered by an influx of money and another pitching phenom on the horizon, Maddon sounded like the fortunate character out of Charles Dickens’ classic novel “Great Expectations.”
“We are at the point now where every time we show up, our goal is to get back to the playoffs and win the World Series,” Maddon said Monday at Charlotte Sports Park.
The 58-year-old manager emphasizes it’s imperative to get off to a quick start because you can’t expect another historic collapse by the Boston Red Sox, which allowed the Rays to get into the playoffs as the American League wild card.
“It’s paramount we get off to a good start. Last year, we proved we could come from behind and win -- that is nice. But it’s much better to do it from the other side,” Maddon said. “You can’t always count on a bunch of circumstances going in your favor at the end of the season.”
Maddon and Andrew Friedman, the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, say unlike last year when so many things were uncertain, this spring is about getting the team fined tuned to get out of the gates quickly.
“There not many jobs open. Right now, based on how we are lining up, it’s more about spreading out the preparation time and making sure guys are ready for opening day, that they are getting enough at-bats, innings and reps on defense and those kinds of things,” Maddon said. “It’s a little bit different because you don’t have to launder out moments for certain guys competitively speaking, but still have to get guys ready in the manner you think is correct.”
Maddon and Friedman made a point of saying high expectations don’t frighten them even with some prognosticators saying the Rays are headed to the World Series. They’ve relished the underdog role, and this is different.
“I like the idea of expectations being raised,” Maddon said. “We are not going to run away from it, but yet it is not something to get haughty about. It’s up to us to treat it with the proper respect and move forward.”
Maddon sees no limit on how high he wants to raise the expectation bar and is not shy about revealing his feelings. He doesn’t care if people say making the playoffs is the bare minimum fans should expect.
“It would be very disappointing not to make the playoffs, and it would’ve been last year despite what was being talked about,” Maddon said. “We’ve got to get there. If you are not aiming high enough, you can hit your mark and not get to the level where you want to be.”
Unlike last year, many positions are set, and there is a lot of depth, particularly with a pitching staff that has eight bonafide starters. Similar to last year, there is great defense.
“There are not necessarily a lot of jobs to be won short of injuries. We are going to send guys to Triple A throughout camp and at the end that are major-league players,” Friedman said. “That is a good thing. Everybody knows it takes more than 25 guys to compete in this division (American League East), and often we had to lean on 30 to 35 guys.”
Friedman has not yet decided what to do with 22-year-old budding superstar lefty Matt Moore, who excelled in the minors last year and exceeded expectations when he was elevated in September.
“Matt has been brought up along pretty methodical, and there is always concern when a guy is young and getting into the grind of a major-league season for the first time,” Friedman said. “Whether he starts the season in the big leagues or Triple A has yet to be determined. The good thing about depth is that you don’t necessarily have to give someone a job. Guys are going to have to earn jobs on this team.”
James Shields, David Price and American League Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson head a deep pitching staff. Friedman said he is not looking to unload any of his hurlers, although if a deal presents itself that would help the club, he obviously would look into it.
“On the starting-pitching front, we don’t view this as having three first basemen,” Friedman said. “If you go back and look staring in 2008, we have used a minimum of seven, and in one year, nine starting pitchers. So it’s a razor-thin margin in this division and what could be the difference in moving on and staying home. It is something we are very mindful of; we don’t look at it as having an overabundance of starting pitching.”