The reports would come across their desks on a nightly basis last summer. Updates from Triple-A Durham that Rays manager Joe Maddon and executive vice president Andrew Friedman would digest routinely. In the case of one player, the numbers were interesting. The impressions were probably more important. Matt Joyce was not in Triple A because he lacked big-league talent. He was not sent back a second time because of some glaring hole in his bat. If Joyce had something to prove in 2009, it was that he finally understood the meaning of devotion. Even before the Rays had acquired him in a trade from the Tigers, there was talk that Joyce's work ethic was not among his greater qualities. There was a perception that he was too passive. There were indications his defense and baserunning were not up to par. So the Rays challenged him. And then watched. And waited. And, from 700 miles away, the word came back. Night after night.
"Here's the thing about Triple-A players: Whenever they get sent down, I expect them to be in a bad mood. You're supposed to want to be in the big leagues. So if you're not in a bad mood, I'm not going to like you," said Durham manager Charlie Montoyo. "When he came back down, he worked harder than he had before. He did everything he was supposed to do to get back to the big leagues, and that's all you can ask."
So now, Joyce is asking for another chance. A chance to prove an easygoing personality is not the same thing as a lack of passion. A chance to show a nice guy can still be aggressive. A chance to be the player the Rays hoped for when they gave up pitcher Edwin Jackson to acquire him.
"They asked me to do a lot of things last year. To be more aggressive on the bases, get better jumps in the outfield, become a more all-around player," Joyce said. "That's what they preached. They wanted a complete player who could play the small game as well as have a big bat."
For the most part, the Rays portrayed Joyce's demotions last season as a numbers thing. They had Gabe Gross and Gabe Kapler in rightfield, and so Joyce, theoretically, would be better off playing daily in Durham. Except Gross' offense was atrocious, and the Rays still used Joyce only when injuries created openings.
It was a not-so-subtle message that, as good as his bat was, Joyce was not so immensely talented that the Rays were willing to overlook the occasional lackluster defense or indifferent base- running.
A year later, Joyce is still proving himself. His work ethic in the second half of Durham's season has earned him some goodwill within the organization, but it would probably help if it was seen firsthand this spring.
"I think he can be a very significant contributor offensively. It's up to him, as we move this thing along and he gets more playing time," Maddon said. "He definitely has the abilities. The physical abilities are really high-end offensively. Easy swing, a good disciplined strike zone, the ball comes off the bat hot, he uses the whole field. He's got all of that going on."
Chances are, Joyce will have a job by the end of spring training. The Rays are happy with Kapler's work against left-handed pitchers, so Joyce would make a natural fit as the other half of a rightfield platoon.
Even if Sean Rodriguez earns significant playing time at second base — and sends Ben Zobrist to rightfield — Joyce could be valuable as a left-handed DH or a bat off the bench.
At 25, Joyce is not a kid anymore. He's actually a year older than Evan Longoria. He's a few weeks older than B.J. Upton, and has about 1,800 fewer big-league plate appearances. In other words, it is beyond time to prove he is ready.
He reached Detroit early in 2008, less than three years after being drafted out of Florida Southern College by way of Armwood High. He had 12 homers in 242 at-bats and had a higher slugging percentage (.492) than most of the contenders for the Rookie of the Year award.
At that point, it looked like good times were just around the corner. A few big homers, a handful of wide smiles and fame would be on its way. Except Joyce knows better now. His bat got him to the big leagues, but he was going to need more to stick around.
"I've always concentrated so much on hitting. And hitting is such a roller coaster," Joyce said. "What I've learned is the things you can control are the little things. The work on the basepaths and getting good jumps and being attentive in the outfield at all times. Knowing the opposing hitter and your own pitcher. Knowing what pitchers throw on certain counts. All these little things that help a team win.
"You have to be mentally ready to play in the big leagues. In '08, I would like to think I was ready but you have to learn as you go. I think I'm there now."