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Tracy Ringolsby

Maddon unfazed by AL East competition

Ringolsby: Maddon unfazed by AL East upgrades

Maddon unfazed by AL East competition
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon is the master of making lemonade.

As if life hasn't been filled with enough lemons for the low-budget Rays in having to compete with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the American League East, along came the Baltimore Orioles, who joined the Yankees in the 2012 postseason, and now it's the Toronto Blue Jays grabbing offseason headlines with a roster-replenishing 12-player deal with the Miami Marlins.

No big deal, said Maddon.

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"We're an equal-opportunity division," Maddon said on Tuesday. "And that's good. It's better for all of us. It should bring out the best in each of us."

Maddon has a team that ranks near the bottom of the AL in payroll, but ranks high in terms of 2013 expectations, despite what is going on in the rest of the division.

"Nothing can be taken for granted," said Maddon. "It is an interesting challenge. I don't see a downside. We like the challenge."

Challenge?

In an effort to recover from last season's disappointment, the Red Sox came to an agreement on a three-year contract with outfielder Shane Victorino on Tuesday, to go along with earlier free-agent signings of outfielder Jonny Gomes, who brings a strong clubhouse presence, catcher David Ross and first baseman/catcher Mike Napoli.

Tampa Bay? The Rays lost center fielder B.J. Upton, who led the team in home runs (28) and RBIs (78) and shared the team lead in stolen bases (31), in free agency to the Atlanta Braves.

With the news that Alex Rodriguez will need surgery on his left hip next month and most likely is out until at least mid-June, the Yankees are looking at a list of free agents, including Stephen Drew, Marco Scutaro, Jeff Keppinger and Mark Reynolds as possible replacements who can provide roster depth once A-Rod comes back.

Tampa Bay? Maddon said right now he'd move left fielder Desmond Jennings to center field in the absence of Upton, although speculation continues that the Rays would give up one of their strong-armed pitchers if they could get a young, impact bat in return.

Baltimore, which slipped ahead of Boston and Tampa Bay to join the Yankees in representing the AL East in the 2012 postseason, has been working hard to make a deal that would add an impact bat to the middle of the Orioles' lineup, with names such as Kansas City's Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, and Minnesota outfielder Josh Willingham being connected to the O's.

Tampa Bay? The Rays made a buy-low free-agent signing of first baseman James Loney, who is only 28, but is in the process of having Tampa Bay finalize a deal that will guarantee him a base salary of $2 million, a considerable reduction from the $6.375 million he was paid by the Los Angeles Dodgers last year.

Toronto, meanwhile, signed free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera to a two-year deal, and then shook up the baseball world by acquiring outfielder Emilio Bonifacio, catcher John Buck, left-hander Mark Buehrle, right-hander Josh Johnson and shortstop Jose Reyes from the Marlins for a package primed with prospects.

Tampa Bay? The Rays watched the free-agent fleeing of right-handed reliever Kyle Farnsworth, left-hander J.P. Howell, first baseman Carlos Pena and Keppinger, along with Upton.

What the Rays have not lost, however, is their swagger.

"The victim's complex is not fit for us," said Maddon. "We might not have everything everybody else has, but that doesn't mean we are not successful. We look at it as an interesting challenge for everybody in the organization. We look at it as something that can bring out the best in everybody in the organization. There's no downside."

There is a recent history that reinforces Maddon's claim.

After suffering 90-plus losses in each of their first 10 seasons of existence, the Rays have advanced to the postseason in three of the past five seasons. That's one time fewer than the Yankees, one more than the Red Sox, two more than Baltimore and three more than Toronto.

No reason for that to change now.

Someone's going to win the AL East, and there also are two Wild Card berths available.

And it is no secret that postseason berths aren't claimed in the winter. A reminder of that came as recently as a year ago, when free-spending offseasons led to championship expectations for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who finished third in the AL West, and the Miami Marlins, who wound up last in the National League East.

"This," Maddon said of the Rays' low-budget, high-expectation approach, "is who we are, and we appreciate who we are."

The Rays are winners, and that is the residual effect of a conscientious effort Maddon made to change the franchise's mindset in 2008, Maddon's third year on the job.

"It was all about changing people's thinking," said Maddon. "It happened prior to the 2008 season. We came out with new uniforms, which the players liked, and we signed [free agents] Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival, a sign of ownership's commitment.

"Then we had that fight against the Yankees that spring."

The seeds were planted on March 8, 2008. Elliot Johnson of the Rays barreled into Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli, suffering a broken right wrist. There were complaints from Yanks manager Joe Girardi, echoed by several players, that the Rays were too aggressive for Spring Training.

Four days later, Shelley Duncan, one of the most vocal Yankees players, touched off a bench-clearing incident when he went into second base with his spikes raised.

"We stood our turf," said Maddon.

A message was sent.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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