PORT CHARLOTTE — The basic thought was already rattling around, of course, then Evan Longoria texted about a book he had been reading, and Joe Maddon took it from there. So before the Rays even take the field this morning for their first official workout of the spring, the catchphrase for their season of grand expectations has already been formed:
After seeing a third consecutive postseason appearance end in the AL Division Series, Maddon made it clear at Thursday's spring-opening media session he wants the Rays' minds set not just on making the playoffs but getting to the World Series, winning the last game and enjoying the spoils. And once Longoria tipped him off to the theories of Simon Sinek's book, Leaders Eat Last, Maddon had a muse.
"I want us to eat last this year," the Rays manager said. "That'd be really cool to kind of enjoy that last supper at the end of the season; get together and really enjoy that particular moment."
Every team can dream big on sun-splashed February afternoons such as Friday, but the Rays are confident theirs are legitimate. Pitcher David Price is among the players raving about the talent and potential, proclaiming, "We have everything.'' Maddon says they "definitely" can win their division. Executive vice president Andrew Friedman offers they have "a chance to do some special things."
After pushing the payroll to a franchise high of about $80 million and keeping the core of last year's team intact, the Rays open camp with few questions and little competition with only the final spots in the rotation, the bullpen and the bench seemingly open.
Among the topics for the next six weeks:
• DH: Having failed in a series of bids to find a designated hitter, the Rays plan to go without one this season. Okay, actually, they plan to go without naming one, instead rotating through a series of players — with Matt Joyce seemingly the leading candidate — with the idea of spreading the duty and the resulting rest.
"It was something for us instead of trying to force it and trying to do something that was more conventional; to approach it in a little different way," Friedman said. "I think there's going to be a lot of benefits to it."
• Fifth starter: With Jeremy Hellickson sidelined at least into mid May after right elbow surgery, there is at least a temporary opening to join a rotation Friedman said, "has a chance to be really, really good."
Right-handers Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome, who both filled in last year, are the leading candidates, though veteran lefty Erik Bedard, signed Friday to a minor-league deal, will join the battle. Friedman said he was confident they had the depth to cover with Enny Romero, Mike Montgomery and newly acquired Nate Karns and Matt Andriese among other options.
• Bullpen: After avoiding using the word closer for years, Maddon now says that is the only role he is willing to assign with free agent addition Grant Balfour his man. From there, the Rays will use their internal data and research to determine how best to deploy an experienced setup crew that includes incumbents Jake McGee and Joel Peralta and former closers Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo. "You can really shorten up a game right there," Maddon said.
• Lineup: Maddon insists he has not scribbled down even one version, having learned to wait deep into the spring when answers become clearer — sometimes on their own. But he has some ideas, of course.
He said, "You'd like to see Desmond (Jennings) get back into that leadoff spot," but he would also consider a job share with lefty-swinging David DeJesus; Longoria and Wil Myers are "going to be in that 3-4 slot there somewhere," but the order and their protection was to be determined; and new catcher Ryan Hanigan presented an interesting profile.
With Hanigan joining veteran Jose Molina, Maddon said, "This is the best catching we've had here."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.