PORT CHARLOTTE — Manager Joe Maddon started Sunday with a confession.
Addressing his rebuilt Rays team before the first full-squad workout of the spring, he said he made a mistake five years that he has perpetuated often and now wanted to correct.
Too many times, he set a goal for his team to play the last game of the season. He wanted to make sure this group understood the aim was now even higher.
"I never mentioned we can win it. That was my screw-up in '08," he said. "It's not just okay to play the last game of the season — play the last game of the season and win it. We want to play the last game of the season in '13 and win it."
The performance of the players they brought in, the return to health of the players injured last season, the further development of the players who don't have much experience will all be tangible factors in their chance to be celebrating at the end.
But most important, Maddon said, is the belief that they can.
The returning players who sat near the front of the room, stars such as David Price, Evan Longoria and Fernando Rodney, understand what they are capable of. And Maddon expects them and other returnees to sincerely carry that message to the new players, veterans such as Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson and James Loney.
"I thought to myself, this is so cool — the Rays have an identity," Maddon said. "Even though we have lost some people, even though we have to conduct our business that way, there's still this core group here … that knew how we do things and what's expected of them. There's nothing that you really have to try to sell. They get it. They agree with it. They believe in it. That's kind of nice.
"And you know they're going to take the message to the new guys, and I'm looking at them and they're pros. There's a bunch of pros sitting all over that room that are going to fit in really well with what we do."
Maddon hit on some of his basic tenets, such as running hard to first base, and simple rules, for example a team dress code that really isn't one: "If you think you look hot, that's how you should dress."
Also, some of his usual talking points: Be process-oriented, remain in the present tense, do the little things to create your own "magic" and don't try to be perfect, with physical mistakes much less of a concern than mental ones.
"I expect you to make physical mistakes, a lot of them," he said. "The thing I really want us to eradicate are the mental mistakes. That's what really controls wins and losses."
The players who have been there know how it works.
"We believe if we do that," Ben Zobrist said, "and if we all buy in, that by the end of the year we will be in the playoffs and have a chance to play that last game."
Even without making any particularly high-profile acquisitions after losing James Shields, B.J. Upton and a half-dozen others off a 90-win team, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said it may be the best overall group they have assembled.
"We feel like we have as much talent in this camp as we've ever had," he said, "and I mean that from a standpoint of depth."
Maddon is confident enough in the players and the process that he will eschew one of his usual motivational staples and not put out a catch phrase, most famously the 2008 equation of 9=8.
"I've had different themes in the past and I thought we needed them at that time," he told them. "Now we need you to go create the theme."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]