PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Joe Maddon didn't hold back when he spoke about the 2014 Rays.
"I believe we can definitely win our division this year," said Maddon while addressing the media on Friday alongside Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman at a press conference. "I think that every year, but I totally believe that this year."
Maddon based his premise on the continuity in the clubhouse and the shared experience of the journey the Rays traveled at the end of the 2013 season just to make the playoffs. The team eventually won a one-game playoff against the Rangers to reach the Wild Card Playoff against the Indians, which they also won, before losing in the Division Series to the Red Sox.
"So, A, really the drive needs to be to not just get to the playoffs," Maddon said. "But to get and win your division, to avoid that first moment because that is such a flip of the coin to win or lose that game. Beyond that, I think we have to really start creating the mindset, not just to get to the playoffs, but to take it deeper. And to get deeply into it.
"And, of course your goal is always going to be to reach the World Series, get to the last game of the year and win it. To eat last. I want us to eat last this year. And that's the big thing."
Maddon referenced the early Tampa Bay clubs he managed and how he would express a desire for a future in which they arrived at camp with "more of a set situation."
"We've arrived at that over the last couple of years," Maddon said.
Few jobs will be available this spring, which is a nice problem to have and a familiar characteristic of championship clubs. Rather than looking to fill slots, the Rays will be going through their paces to round into form for the 2014 season.
"It definitely makes the planning a lot easier," Maddon said. "It's a lot more comfortable from my chair. A big part of that among our guys ... there's a lot of quiet confidence among our group. A lot of familiarity where the guys are good with one another, they know how each other reacts, the camaraderie is probably as high as it's going to be. So all that stuff matters regarding the continuity of bringing the same guys back.
"...People always want to compare this group to whatever you thought your last best group was. [This year's group] is just a deep group, it's a well-balanced group. I think balance is a really good word to describe this team. There's complementary pieces and there's all these intangible pieces. ... So the continuity of bringing the same guys back is very, very big. And the competition for open spots among really strong candidates is also very interesting. So, from my perspective, really eager to get this going."
The Rays will have the same outfield, infield, and, save for the addition of Ryan Hanigan and the subtraction of Jose Lobaton, the same catching they had during the 2013 season when the team won 92 games and reached the postseason for the fourth time in six seasons.
"Collectively, it's a really strong group that are well balanced that can play defense and some guys that have bat to ball ability and guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark. Some guys who excel at getting on base," Friedman said. "I just think it's a really good mix that way."
Sans Jeremy Hellickson, who will be out until May following elbow surgery, the starting rotation is the same, as is most of the bullpen, save for several key additions highlighted by closer Grant Balfour.
"I'll always say the area I'm most worried about is the bullpen," Friedman said. "As far as we sit here today, I like the names a lot, but it's something I think I'm just programmed to be worried about it. And we're always going to be monitoring things through Spring Training, figuring out if there's ways to get better."
Regardless of Friedman's worries, Maddon likes what he sees heading into the start of Spring Training.
"Right now, as you get here, it's starting to come together and it really makes a lot of sense the way Andrew put it together," Maddon said.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.