PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays aren’t afraid of lofty expectations.
Go ahead, pencil them in as World Series contenders. After making the playoffs three of the past four seasons, they concede it’ll be a major disappointment if they aren’t playing deep into October this year.
The cost-conscious franchise rarely creates splashy headlines during the offseason, and this winter has been no different. But after quietly bolstering the middle of the batting order with a couple of modest but productive free-agent acquisitions, manager Joe Maddon thinks the team has a very good chance to return to the postseason.
“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,” Maddon said Monday, the eve of the start of spring training for pitchers and catchers. The first full-squad workout is Feb. 26.
“It’s more about managing expectations this year as opposed to trying to build some. I’m very good with that,” he said. “That’s the position you want to be in on annual basis. You want to be able to be included in that kind of talk.”
Much of the optimism is rooted in the Rays having one of the deepest pitching rotations in baseball, a unit that executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman didn’t have to disrupt in order to address the club’s biggest priorities this winter, adding power to an often anemic offense and strengthening the bullpen.
The front office extended a tight budget by spending $13 million to sign first baseman Carlos Pena and designated hitter Luke Scott, a couple of left-handed bats that could add some balance to a lineup already featuring Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton, Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings.
The Rays also brought in veteran catcher Jose Molina, utility infielder Jeff Keppinger and relievers Burke Badenhop and Fernando Rodney and believe they have a blend of youth and experience capable of continuing to compete with the big spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL East.
Last year’s starting rotation of James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann remains intact, and rookie left-handers Matt Moore and Alex Torres and young righty Alex Cobb provide depth in case of injuries or if the team decides to make a deal to try to improve the roster between now and opening day.
Not that Friedman isn’t comfortable with what seems like a surplus.
“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 and look, starting in 2008, we’ve used a minimum of seven. And in one year, nine starting pitchers,” Friedman said.
“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,” Friedman added. “We don’t look at it as having an overabundance of starting pitching.”
The Yankees and Red Sox begin every season with expectations of winning the division. The Rays, who won the AL East in 2008 and 2010, are getting to that point.
“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 that you shy away from. … The only way or time it can become a problem is if you take on that mentality of we’re that good or we don’t have to work,” Friedman said.
Short of injuries, few jobs will be on the line in spring training. Still, Maddon and Friedman are confident players won’t become complacent.
“It really speaks to the culture we’ve created, the process that’s in place. Whether there’s extremely high expectations or not, I don’t think it fazes our guys. … They’re focused on the process and how they all fit together — the 25-man roster — to compete and win on a nightly basis,” Friedman said.
One subject Maddon plans to address with pitchers and catchers on Tuesday, and again when the full squad reports on the weekend, is the importance of getting off to a fast start.
Thanks to Boston’s monumental September collapse, Tampa Bay was able to overcome a nine-game deficit in the standings to earn the AL wild-card berth on the final night of last season.
“I think that’s really paramount for us,” the manager said. “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 a season because you’ve dug yourself a hole.”