Different feeling in Rays' camp this year

Different feeling in Rays' camp this year

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman met the media Thursday afternoon, and the Rays' manager and the team's executive vice president of baseball operations agreed that the 2010 club is loaded for bear.

"We feel like we have a very talented team, the most talented team in Rays history," Friedman said. "And so with that, we feel confident we'll be able to play competitive, meaningful games in September."

A year ago, Tampa Bay was set to begin the team's first Spring Training in Port Charlotte as the defending American League champions. A year later, the team arrives at its Spring Training home having won 84 games and come up short of the postseason en route to earning the tag of underachievers.

"It is a different feeling," Maddon said. "Last year, I was trying to tone things down a little bit. The 'dig me' month did not help. Coming into this season, getting ourselves back on our feet and understand that we definitely can make it back to the playoffs this year. That's the big thing."

After the 2009 season ended, Maddon looked into the rearview mirror at what happened and he noted that the obvious thing was the Rays need to win 10 to 12 more games in '10 than they did last year. The tough part came when looking at his team and asking, "How am I going to do that?"

Maddon's assessment told him his club needed to "start better and finish better, obviously," and he also plans to stress the need for his team to finish games stronger.

"I want to really point out [to the team] the real fine line, the thin line between winning and losing," Maddon said. "We won 84 games last year, [which was] down from 97 the year before that. You look at a lot of the games we lost, there were easily 10 games that we could have won. And I want our guys to understand and emphasize the little things. To win in our division, you can't get behind Toronto, Baltimore, Boston and New York early and expect to come back."

Maddon attributed many of the losses to "not doing the little things well," which shaped his view of what needs to be done this spring.

"From my perspective, the emphasis has to go back to fundamentals," Maddon said. "For us to get back to where we want to be, we have to get better at the little things. My expectations are to get back to the playoffs, and my expectations are that we're going to play a better, or more fundamental, game of baseball."

A major consideration for the Rays playing better baseball is the overall health of the team. Friedman said the club had a Wednesday meeting with Ron Porterfield, the team's head athletic trainer, and it was one of the briefest such meetings they have had, which bodes well.

Looking at who will play where, five positions are decided, but the starters at three positions -- catcher, right field and second base -- remain unknown. Friedman declared that the Rays were happy with the catching situation that will include incumbent Dioner Navarro and newcomer Kelly Shoppach.

"We're not looking at that really as a competition, as opposed to two guys capable of helping [the team] win games," Friedman said.

As for second base and right field, Maddon and Friedman weren't as decisive.

Versatile Ben Zobrist appears to be the logical choice at second base, but Maddon pointed out that Tampa Bay does not feel compelled to lock him down at one position. Others in contention for the job include Shawn Rodriguez and Reid Brignac, so the team could head in another direction, which might also affect the right-field situation, if Zobrist is factored into that equation.

If Zobrist is not a possibility in right, the job looks as though it will come down to a platoon between Gabe Kapler and Matt Joyce. But Desmond Jennings, Fernando Perez and Justin Ruggiano could all have a say-so in changing that view.

"Obviously, second base and right field are going to be something that we spend a lot of time sorting through," Friedman said. "We really like the names on paper. So we'll go through and try to figure out how those guys best complement the players around them and put us in a position to score the most runs possible and prevent as many runs as possible."

Despite the fact the team's Opening Day payroll will be approximately $72 million -- high for the Rays -- Friedman understands the economics of keeping the ship from listing. Making the decisions about which players they keep, who they try to sign and who they let go demand that he must always "keep one eye on the future and one eye on the present."

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