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Richard Justice

Escobar starting off on right foot with Rays

Positive early results as Maddon works to make shortstop comfortable

Escobar starting off on right foot with Rays

TAMPA, Fla. -- So far, Yunel Escobar has been everything the Rays hoped for and then some. Right, Joe Maddon?

"Honestly, my goodness, tremendous work ethic," Maddon said. "Just watch him in pregame. He does it every day."

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How about Escobar's attitude?

"I've had a lot of conversations with him daily," said Maddon. "I'm going to continue to do that. He's a very likable guy. Our biggest job is to get to understand him, and as that's happening, he's going to understand us better, too."

So far, so good, huh?

"If we can continue along this path, I'd be so happy," said Maddon. "He'd have himself, not a good year, but a great year."

The Rays don't make many mistakes, and so when they acquired Escobar from the Marlins last December, eyebrows were raised.

Questions emerged about Escobar's attitude, maturity and judgement during six seasons with the Braves and Blue Jays. He's enormously gifted, but there were times when he didn't seem to be worth the trouble.

It spoke volumes that Tampa Bay believed in him. The Rays have taken chances before on players who had problems elsewhere and been rewarded.

Maddon is so good at reaching players and has such an inclusive, positive clubhouse environment that players tend to love being part of it. He demands very little, only that his players play hard, respect one another and put the team first. He's so decent and so likable that players seem to want to please him.

Maddon never thought he was doing was anything special until getting a tap on the shoulder while running an instructional league team in 1984.

"You've built a great atmosphere here," Angels manager Gene Mauch told him.

Coming from a man who was first a mentor, but also a master of organization and detail was one of the great compliments Maddon has been given.

Back to the Rays, who made upgrading their defense a priority after a 2012 season when it might have cost them a playoff berth. In one year, their defense went from first to last in the American League in fielding. After allowing just 27 unearned runs in 2011, they gave up that many in their first 68 games of 2012.

Their defense stabilized after Ben Zobrist moved to short for the final 47 games, but at 90-72, they missed the playoffs by three games. Zobrist can play so many areas at a high level that Tampa Bay preferred to retain the flexibility of moving him around.

So after the Blue Jays traded Escobar to the Marlins, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman acquired him for Minor League infielder Derek Dietrich. The Rays say they researched Escobar's background exhaustively and became convinced he could be a significant contributor on a club that appears good enough to win the World Series.

Maddon will again work his platooning magic, planning to have regulars at only three spots: third base (Evan Longoria), center field (Desmond Jennings) and shortstop (Escobar).

Maddon said having an elite defender at short "plugs everything up."

"When you've got that consistency coming out of that position, it just tidies everything up," he said. "When you're making mistakes there, I think it mentally impacts the rest of the diamond."

It probably helps that two Tampa Bay players-- second baseman Kelly Johnson and catcher Jose Molina -- have played with Escobar in the past.

"He's like 90 percent of us," Johnson said. "When times are tough, you have to put everything aside and still play hard. Obviously, that's part of signing a professional contract and part of what you're learning on the way up to the big leagues. You learn how to handle the adversity and be for the team and not yourself as much."

Johnson said Escobar's defense last season "was the best I've ever seen from him.

"He has such good arm strength that if he catches every ball, he has a chance to make some pretty crazy plays," Johnson said. "He can take away a lot of hits. He has had a great attitude. This is his third team and coming to a place with such an established culture, he seems to be in a much better place."

For his part, Escobar, 30, said he's thrilled to be with the Rays and that he hopes to play there a long time.

"I feel comfortable," he said through a club translator. "It's a new organization, and I'm very happy. Joe Maddon is a nice guy, a nice person. I hope I'm here for many years."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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