Sunday, December 10, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays believe pieces in place for success

PORT CHARLOTTE

Before there were pitchers, before there were catchers, before there were green fields waiting for a team to begin work upon them, there was a singular belief in tomorrow.

For the Rays, it began with that single bit of confidence, with that simple agreement by those in charge that this team could be good, too.

So what the heck?

Why not go for it?

Here at the start of spring training, it sounds so simple to look back to those first few hours of the offseason. That was when executive vice president Andrew Friedman and his staff looked at the incomplete jigsaw puzzle that was the Tampa Bay Rays and nodded. Yes, the team needed to replace this piece, and it wanted to replace that one. But the corners were in place, and everyone could still see a bit of blue in the picture.

It began that easily, with the talent evaluators looking at a team and deciding it had more life to it. It begins with the smart guys of a franchise agreeing that, yeah, this team could be pretty darned good. Again.

So it hangs onto David Price, although the entire hemisphere seemed to expect him to be traded.

It brings back James Loney, although many figured his payday had gotten too big.

It brings in Grant Balfour, a bonus little signing at the end.

It brings in Ryan Hanigan, and it brings back Yunel Escobar, and it brings back David DeJesus, and it brings in Heath Bell. It spends money that it will tell you it doesn't really have. It lets go of Luke Scott and Delmon Young and Fernando Rodney.

All in all, it was a pretty impressive offseason by a team that many thought might have run out of them. As they begin camp, the Rays seem to be preparing for their seventh straight winning season — only the Yankees have more — and their fifth straight season of 90-plus victories — only the Rangers have as many.

Even for this team — the best bet in baseball — this was an impressive balancing act over the past few months. Instead of counting pennies, why, this team was counting nickels. Who knew?

Once again, no team will do more with less. Once again, no team will maximize its daily lineup any better than this one.

Already, manager Joe Maddon is talking about how the Rays want to eat last this year, his metaphor for winning the World Series. Yeah, it's bold talk. But Maddon, optimistic soul that he is, seems to believe it.

"There is no ducking it," Maddon said. "No hiding from it. No saying, 'No, we don't want to talk about it. It's going to jinx us.' If you believe in jinxes, don't even do this.

"You have to believe it from the first. It's not just hyperbole. It's not just talk. It's belief you can do this."

Oh, there is still proving to be done. The Rays still play in a division with the world champion Red Sox, and with the ATMs of the Yankees, and with the Orioles. They still won't be able to mash the ball the way some offensive lineups do. There were still far too many starts from the rotation last season that went five innings or fewer. It still won't be a great base-stealing team.

Still, it is 2014, and the Rays still seem to matter.

Nice, isn't it?

If there was a key decision in the offseason, of course, it was the one to hang onto Price. Every five minutes, there was another bit of speculation of where left-hander was going and for whom, as if his departure was on the clock. Instead, the Rays kept him. Looking back, that probably shouldn't have surprised anyone.

Remember 2010? That year, everyone expected the Rays to move Carl Crawford before his contract ran out. But the Rays held onto Crawford and won the American League East title.

Then there was 2012. Already, the trade rumors were whirling with James Shields. But the Rays liked their rotation a lot better with Shields in it, and they delayed trading him for another year.

This time, they held onto Price. The bottom line was that Price meant more to the Rays than he did to any of his suitors. Oh, if the trade had been worth it, yes, the Rays would have traded Price. And while they still would have talked confidently about their team, the rotation would have looked much thinner without him.

This is better. There is a mentality that comes with bringing Price back, a promise that this season is going to be worth watching. If Price had been traded, this team would have had a lot more questions, and September would have looked hazy. With him? The temptation is to think: Yeah, this team can get there from here.

All of this started with a bit of confidence. And, in many ways, that confidence is as large as ever. Maddon says flatly that his team can win its division. Friedman talks about playing meaningful games in September. This team believes it belongs with the best the game has to offer.

Listen, and perhaps you will believe it, too.

Here at the beginning, why wouldn't you?

 
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