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Maddon has hopes of history repeating

Maddon has hopes of history repeating

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Joe Maddon, who is embarking on his fourth season as manager of the Rays, took some time to discuss with MLB.com the state of his team with less than a month to go before Opening Day.

MLB.com: How much tougher is it going to be to compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox based on their offseason activity?

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Maddon: The Yankees, obviously, have a much better pitching staff. We've countered a little bit by being able to hit lefties better with Pat Burrell and Gabe Kapler. When you talk about the Yankees specifically, I see their pitching staff has been greatly improved.

The Red Sox, they've juggled it around a little bit. I think they're going to be as good as they were last year, which puts them where they were last year. They just have a good team concept up there. They're always scary.

Primarily, it's the Yankees' pitching. The Red Sox, I see them being pretty much the same kind of team they were last year. I think Baltimore's gotten better. Nobody's talking about them. And, of course, the Blue Jays lost [A.J.] Burnett, but they have a whole stable full of really good arms. I thought the second half of last year, they played really well. I remember Cito [Gaston] made a comment that he wanted to see them finish 10 games over .500, and I believe they did.

So, again, I know everybody's better. I think we're better also. I know we're better. It will come down to execution, playing the games right. I believe there are going to be a lot of close games this year that will be decided on a baserunning play, a defensive play, not just about hitting.

MLB.com: How do you feel about becoming targets this season?

Maddon: Love it. Love it. It's much better than being a non-target. I've already addressed that with the guys in regard to expectations. First of all, I think pressure is self-inflicted. I want them to understand that. As long as we support one another, then we should be able to control that aspect. The expectations, I believe that nobody should place higher expectations on us than we would ourselves. If you approach it from that thought process, I believe you can use it to your advantage.

MLB.com: How much better can your offense be this year?

Maddon: It really can be a lot better. It's there. It's all in there. I'm talking about just physical ability. And with the additions of Pat and Gabe and Matt [Joyce], etc., the biggest thing you look at from our offense last year -- and we really struggled against left-handed pitching -- they increase our ability to hit left-handers right away.

I also like to think B.J. [Upton] being well [will help]. Carl [Crawford], I thought he was coming along until he hurt his finger. He missed a long stretch of the season. Carl may have gotten back up to .300. That guy, when he gets hot, he gets hot.

We have a bunch of guys who maybe weren't at their exact numbers last year, and then you have this new blood. I just think naturally, without being cocky about it, you can expect us to be significantly better offensively than we were last year.

MLB.com: What do you want to change from last year?

Maddon: It wasn't about coming in here and giving them the typical talk about needing to hit better with two strikes, [or] we have to throw a strike when we need to -- that wasn't the point. My thought was we have to really think properly. So coming into this camp, I wanted to get our heads on right, fast. The work is normal. I think we're very skillful. We have good players. I think just by playing more, our guys are going to get better.

MLB.com: How nice is it to say, "We want guys to be fresh come October," and not have them walk away?

Maddon: I haven't seen any smirking this year. So that's nice. Seriously, I want all of our guys to finish strong. I think that's a big component in regard to winning a division and then getting to the playoffs.

MLB.com: You've talked about your team's defense being a key to winning. What do you think of your team's defense heading into this season?

Maddon: I just believe we have a bunch of guys who are the best at their position. And I'd really like to see more than one of our guys win a Gold Glove this year. And that's where I've been challenging them.

Physically, they're sound. I'm talking about how they play the game -- being in the right spot, positioning, throwing to the right bases and making good decisions. Those are the areas I think can be improved upon to make you an even better defensive team.

MLB.com: So who should win Gold Gloves from your club this season?

Maddon: I think [Dioner Navarro], Carlos [Pena], Aki [Iwamura], [Jason Bartlett], [Evan Longoria], Carl and B.J.

MLB.com: Everybody but right field?

Maddon: The right-field spot is not bad, but that's probably going to be a guy who is platooned more. That's the way I see it.

MLB.com: Is it funny to hear people say you guys won last year, but you didn't go through adversity.

Maddon: It was remarkable, actually. That speaks to the strength of our bench last year. You can go through the entire season [with injuries] -- and not just significant players, from [Scott Kazmir] to Carlos, to Navvy, [Bartlett], Longo, [Troy Percival], Carl. And we had the suspensions. We had the suspensions where we were playing one man short a lot, for almost a month.

And I really thought that our guys rallied around all those moments. And you talk about what Willy [Aybar] did coming off the bench, Gabe Gross, what he was able to do, [Ben] Zobrist, when he came back, [Shawn] Riggans. The contributions Riggans made offensively in limited at-bats was pretty good when you look at his RBIs per at-bat. We were able to fill in the gaps there.

A lot of that was driven by the fact the pitching was so good and we caught the ball on defense. There was a lot of adversity, and I'm really proud of the way the guys handled it. And that would be the biggest lesson learned last year. When somebody gets hurt, don't cry about, put the next guy in there and let's keep moving forward.

MLB.com: What's been the biggest difference in this year's camp?

Maddon: I've been able to get so much more involved in the coaching, and it's been so much fun, because I don't have to deal with a whole bunch of other stuff going on. Even when I go home now, it's different. When I go home at night and put my feet up, I just think about what I want to do tomorrow -- baseball. Not, "Who do I have to talk to about this particular problem?" It's pretty nice.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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