PORT CHARLOTTE — Manager Joe Maddon said there eventually will be a time when Matt Joyce is an everyday outfielder.
And after Maddon watched Joyce grow into a "complete player" the past couple of years, the reason it may not happen this season has more to do with how the Rays roster is built, not the makeup of the 26-year-old Tampa native.
"He finally feels comfortable in his major-league skin; he knows he belongs here," Maddon said. "He knows he can do this."
Joyce gained a lot of confidence from last season, when he hit 10 homers — including two grand slams in big moments — while making 63 starts for the American League East champions. But a reason Joyce will get more opportunities this year, while sharing time in rightfield with switch-hitting Ben Zobrist, is the improvement he has made in other areas of his game.
"He's become a really good outfielder," Maddon said. "He's really turned it on defensively. He knows how to play here, we're not just here to hit home runs. His baserunning has improved dramatically, his defense, his arm, everything has improved. And that's why we really like him, because he's a complete player right now."
Joyce, who starred at Armwood High, wanted to make an impact right away when he was acquired from the Tigers following the 2008 season for 14-game winner Edwin Jackson. But while Jackson made the All-Star team in his first year in Detroit, Joyce was hampered by injuries in the past two spring trainings and spent a large chunk of time in Triple A.
It was, at times, frustrating, and tested Joyce's patience. However, Joyce passed Tampa Bay's tests in heeding a challenge to become an all-around player.
"I think something that I really have come a long way with was taking criticism and really working to get better," Joyce said. "And coming from Detroit, we weren't big on baserunning. They wanted you to hit, that was the big thing. Over here, they preach the 'Ray Way' and want to play the total game. That was a big adjustment for me."
Joyce made a nice impression last season after getting called up in June, delivering at the plate in clutch situations. He racked up 12 tying or go-ahead RBIs, with 28 of his 40 total RBIs coming with two outs (AL MVP Josh Hamilton, by comparison, had 33). Joyce's top moments came on a two-out, pinch-hit grand slam in Minnesota July 3 to help lift the Rays to an 8-6 win, and a two-out grand slam to break up Detroit starter Max Scherzer's no-hitter in his first game against his former team.
"I love those situations," he said. "I think those situations are what defines somebody."
Said Evan Longoria: "He had that capability to really seize the moment and get a big hit when we needed it. So I think if he is in that everyday role in rightfield or wherever he is, I'm looking forward to him really coming into his own. Getting those 300-400-500 at-bats under your belt throughout the course of the season, it really helps knowing you'll be there every day. I look for him to really have a breakout year."
To play every day, Joyce will have to have success against left-handed pitching, which the Rays believe he will.
One reason is the quality of his at-bats, which Maddon has dubbed "awesome" and "almost 100 percent." Though Joyce didn't have many chances against lefties with the Rays, just 25 of his 216 at-bats last season (with only two hits), Maddon said he'll get more as both Joyce's experience and the Rays' platoon-orientated personnel dictate.
And Joyce said he's more physically prepared for the season-long grind, having picked up things last year from former All-Star leftfielder Carl Crawford's daily routine, and "exhausting" himself during offseason workouts to make sure he's healthy.
"Physically, I feel like I'm ready to play 162 games," he said. "I'm ready."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.