PORT CHARLOTTE — The progress and evolution of the Rays franchise can be measured in many ways. And Monday, as their top two baseball people sat on a sun-drenched deck at the Charlotte Sports Park discussing the start of spring training, it was obvious in the words.
No longer is the talk just about playing meaningful games in September or getting to the postseason. After being knocked out in the first round the past two Octobers, and with an unexpected payroll boost from ownership this season, the conversation starts with being one of the teams playing at the end of the season.
"I believe this team is capable of getting back to the World Series," manager Joe Maddon said. "Absolutely."
There is no more optimistic day on the baseball calendar than the opening of camp, but the Rays' confidence seems well-founded, given a dominant starting rotation, premium defense, deep bullpen and improved lineup.
"Yes, we not only want to get to the playoffs, we want to get deeper in the playoffs," Maddon said. "We want to get back to the World Series. That is our goal as we stand here. I'm sure almost every camp you're going to walk into right now this time of year, they're going to be saying the same thing, but I'm here to tell you legitimately this is our goal. And every day that we work is toward that end."
They have some questions to be answered over the next 46 days, such as who will start at shortstop and split time at catcher, how the rotation will be filled out and which way the batting order works best. But Maddon and executive vice president Andrew Friedman spoke as much Monday about making sure the optimism is handled properly.
"I like the idea of expectations being raised a little bit," Maddon said. "I like the idea of people wanting to include us in that type of discussion. I want our players to like it, too. It's more about managing expectations this year as opposed to trying to build some, and I'm very good with that."
Pitcher James Shields, the most veteran Ray, said they've worked hard to get there.
"That's what we want to be, that's our goal every year to be that team that everyone wants to come after," he said. "Our goal is to go to the World Series and win it. … We've got a really good team. I'm excited about it. … Everything is right in line for success. We've just got to go right out there and execute it."
There was similar buzz after the Rays' stunning run to the 2008 World Series, but their expected encore was doomed by a 9-14 April and they couldn't make up the ground. There were lessons learned then, and Friedman and Maddon don't expect any issues with being under-prepared or overconfident.
The large turnout for winter workouts at the Trop validates their thinking, and the heavy population of veterans in the clubhouse calms their concerns. Maddon will address it when he speaks to the pitchers and catchers before today's workout, and again to the full squad Sunday.
"The only way or time it can become a problem is if you take on that mentality of, 'We're that good,' or, 'We don't have to work,' " Friedman said. "I think our guys have gotten to the point with the culture Joe's created in the clubhouse with our coaching staff, it's not an impediment, it's not an issue, it's not a risk factor I think it might be in other places."
One key will be getting off to a good start, and with 16 of their first 22 games against the five other American League powers — the Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, Angels and Rangers. And other issues, such as injuries, are sure to emerge.
But for the first day, they were willing to talk the talk.
"We're at the point now, that every time we show up here our goal is get back to the playoffs and our goal is to win the World Series," Maddon said. "It's got to be."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]