Sunday, May 27, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays see advantage in roster continuity

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays will gather as a group this morning for the standard pomp, circumstance and rigmarole that accompanies the first official full-squad workout of the spring, a full agenda of expectations, regulations and explanations.

Introductions, however, hardly will be necessary.

And as they head into a season with grand aspirations, that might be one of the biggest advantages they have.

"There's a lot of quiet confidence, a lot of familiarity among the guys," manager Joe Maddon said. "Guys are good with one another, they know how each other acts. The camaraderie is probably as high as it could possibly be."

Pending decisions on final spots on the bench and in the bullpen and — temporarily — the rotation, there's a reasonable chance only three players on the 25-man roster will be new to the Tampa Bay organization: catcher Ryan Hanigan, reliever Heath Bell and infielder/outfielder Logan Forsythe. A fourth addition, closer Grant Balfour, is making a return engagement.

The continuity is one thing, certainly in terms of working under the oft-unorthodox way the Rays do things. The camaraderie might be even better in terms of leading to success.

"Whenever you can keep a core group of guys together, it makes everything kind of go a little more smooth," ace David Price said. "It really brings the most out of your players when you can be comfortable in your own skin."

"A lot easier," third baseman Evan Longoria said.

The lack of turnover makes this different than a typical Rays spring, when there are usually enough new faces to require name tags. Player after player has reported this week talking about how excited he is to see the team kept intact, so much so that you expect to hear the Turtles' Happy Together among the tunes blaring from the iPad in Maddon's office.

"It just brings a smile to your face," centerfielder Desmond Jennings said.

Having good players would seem to be more important than having familiar faces, but starter Alex Cobb said there were noticeable issues last year with all the newcomers. Most obvious was the slow start that left the Rays four games under .500 a week into May, and from which they then played at nearly a .600 pace to finish 92-71 and make the playoffs for the fourth time in six years.

"I think one of the problems last year was when we got into spring training, everybody was kind of cliquey, nobody really meshed well together," Cobb said. "As a group, as a whole of our team, nobody really knew each other too well.

"You could kind of see that attitude shift a little bit, probably a quarter way, halfway through the season last year, guys starting to hang out, mess with each other in the clubhouse, and just feeling comfortable.

"We get to skip that point this year and just go straight into showing up to the field with your friends and playing baseball."

Maddon, too, expects things to be better with this group: "The continuity component is really fun to think about."

It was when he sensed something was missing last spring that he resorted to his Joe-nanigans to try to lighten the mood and loosen the collar, arranging for clubhouse visits by a DJ, a magician, a cockatoo, a pair of penguins and a merengue band, all in a three-week April/May window.

"I wasn't seeing enough of that — not bad guys, kind of, not even shy, that's not the right word — they just weren't crazy enough," Maddon said. "Just not this togetherness that we're used to seeing."

They eventually got that winning — and loving — feeling back last season, the clubhouse evolving further as Chris Archer and Wil Myers were called up from the minors in June and David DeJesus acquired in an August trade. Now all three will be there from the start as well.

"We know how all of us work together, so we don't have that period where you're kind of walking around like, 'Who's he?' " DeJesus said. "We know who we are, and we've just got to go out now and just perform. That's all we have to worry about."

That seems like something everyone can agree on.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

 
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