SARASOTA — Manager Joe Maddon has seen signs this spring, from perceived to subtle to obvious, that lead him to believe the Rays will be improved offensively.
From the handiwork of some players they brought in and brought back, to the quality of at-bats he has seen up and down the lineup, to the intense effort being made to improve small-ball and baserunning tactics.
"I like the offense," he said.
But third baseman Evan Longoria said it will take more.
"Offensively, I think we need to want to be better," Longoria said. "Like really take pride in going out on a nightly basis and proving to ourselves again and again that we are the offensive team we think we are this year, and that everybody has kind of expected us to be in the past two-three years.
"We've kind of really not lived up to expectations in the past. … We've found a way to get it done. But I think there's a lot of guys in this room primed for really big years, that have shown some flashes of what kind of players we're all capable of being from time to time, but really haven't put all of that together all at one time.
"So I'd like to see extended periods of time where from an offensive standpoint we're going out and really putting the pedal to the metal from pitch No. 1. I think that would do wonders for our confidence as a group and really just get the team going in the right direction."
There is certainly room for improvement, as the Rays ranked ninth in the American League in runs last season (with 700), and 11th (697) and eighth (707) the two before that.
Even a slight improvement could make a huge difference — and make life a little less stressful for their elite level pitchers, who often have to work with a slim margin. Consider that during that span their record was 112-113 in games decided by two runs or fewer.
"So many times in the past we've really just relied on pitching," Longoria said. "It's like, we've been winning but offensively we're not doing a whole lot. So just to alleviate some of that pressure from the pitching staff and allow us to all really start hitting and not wait until the halfway point or three-quarters of the way through the season to find our groove. Get into that mind-set or that mode early and try to ride it out."
Maddon says he expects the encouraging signs of spring to carry into the season:
• The hitters overall are continuing and getting more comfortable with the 2013 shift in approach to more contact (and thus fewer strikeouts), and have been more willing, and more successful, at bunting, hit-and-runs and taking extra bases.
• There is a built-in improvement with having outfielders Wil Myers, who was called up mid June, and David DeJesus, acquired in August, for a full year. Plus the addition of Ryan Hanigan as the primary catcher and Logan Forsythe as a utility man.
• Previously inconsistent players, led by Desmond Jennings, have appeared promisingly better.
"You look up and down the lineup," Maddon said, "and you've got a bunch of guys that fall into the category of working good at-bats, accepting their walks — not looking for them but accepting them — and able against a good pitcher to not just concede."
Speaking for the pitchers, Alex Cobb said they are used to the situation, and that any frustration they might have over a lack of run support is more than offset by a deep appreciation for how good defensively those same teammates are, and how many runs are saved. "These hitters-slash-defenders are what made us the pitchers who we are to a huge degree," he said.
But they could always use a little help from their friends.
"We're always going to be pitching and defense," Maddon said. "But this team here offensively might be able to augment better than we've had over the last couple years."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.