Joe Maddon isn't concerned about the details. • With his Rays opening a five-week exhibition season today, he has yet to put much time into sorting out how to set up his once-again renovated lineup and how to get the most out of the new guys, the healthy guys and the gonna-do-better guys. And he picks up a blank yellow legal pad off his desk for emphasis. • "I don't know," he said. "I swear to you, promise you, I have not one time done it on a piece of paper. Not once. I'm waiting to see it and try it and feel it and understand it better." • There are a few things he does know.
Desmond Jennings will hit leadoff. Evan Longoria will be third or fourth. Ben Zobrist will slot in ahead of him, some combination of Luke Scott, Matt Joyce and James Loney behind with Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson potential wild cards. Also, that the bottom line will be better.
After finishing 11th in the American League last season in runs (the 697 their fewest since the Devil Rays days) and despite losing three of the most productive players off that team in B.J. Upton, Jeff Keppinger and Carlos Peña, Maddon and the Rays are certain they have the components — more contact, fewer strikeouts, enough power and a credit for better health — to have a more productive offense.
"I totally believe it's going to be capable of putting up kind of significantly more runs than we did last year," Maddon said. "It could be really good."
The reasons for their optimism basically can be broken down into three categories.
As obvious as it was from watching how much the Rays missed Evan Longoria during his three-plus months on the disabled list, the numbers showcased it.
They averaged nearly a run more per game with him in the lineup and more than a win a week, which would have more than covered the three they missed the playoffs by.
"It couldn't be more highlighted than it was last year," Maddon said. "Whatever you call WAR, wins above replacement, I have to believe there were 3½-4 in there somewhere that would have put us where we needed to be."
Longoria, expected back in camp this weekend after the birth of his daughter, is reported healthy, buoyed by a surgical procedure on his troubling left hamstring. Plus, there will be a plan for some preventive days off — or as DH — to keep him playing all season. The Rays are well-aware not only of how much he contributes, but how he makes others more productive.
Having Luke Scott and Sam Fuld healthy all season also should help.
Scott, limited to 96 games last season by a series of injuries and not very productive when he did play, has already looked much stronger and with his swing in better form. Fuld, who missed nearly four months following wrist surgery, will be, at the least, a busy fourth outfielder and possibly a platoon starter (against some lefties) in leftfield.
The Rays had reason to be disappointed in the seasons of several players, including Desmond Jennings, who in his first full season hit only .246 with more strikeouts (120) and fewer walks (46) than expected. Others who came up short include: Matt Joyce, Ryan Roberts, Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton.
But the Rays have cause for optimism. They don't feel any of them have to do anything extraordinary to just get back to their projected levels, which would be good enough. And they are encouraged because the players have been both accountable and open to suggestions — in some cases ones who hadn't been before.
"It's definitely within their ability to get back to where they have been," Maddon said. "And I could see them all doing it. They're really motivated."
On most days, the Rays will have three new players in their lineup. Yunel Escobar will play most every day at shortstop, Kelly Johnson many days either at second base or, possibly, leftfield and James Loney against right-handed starters at first base.
All are veterans who have had past big-league success. All are coming off bad seasons. And all, Maddon said, have a chance to again be key contributors by making some adjustments the Rays suggest and being used properly.
Escobar, who has looked sharp early in camp, and Johnson, who played with Escobar in Atlanta and Toronto, are particularly intriguing. Escobar can get on base and hit for average with some power, and Johnson has averaged 21 homers over the past three seasons.
"I think you're going to be surprised what we get out of Yunel and Kelly," Maddon said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]