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Tampa Bay Rays happy with team, continue to look for upgrades as Yankees get better

INDIANAPOLIS — Making up the 19 games they finished behind the Yankees was already a mighty challenge for the Rays, and it became only more vexing Tuesday when the World Series champs reportedly acquired All-Star centerfielder Curtis Granderson.

"He's the kind of guy that fits into that landscape in New York where he's going to thrive within that kind of a situation," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "So of course he's going to make them better."

The Rays have their own issues, convinced they were better than last season's 84-win showing and confident they're good enough to challenge the Yankees and Red Sox for a playoff berth.

"I do believe we can compete now and in the future," Maddon said at his winter meetings media session.

To do so, they're trying to do a few things:

• Upgrade their bullpen and make a few other improvements on a somewhat limited budget.

They've been aggressive in extensive conversations to put themselves "in position to potentially do a couple things," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, but nothing was imminent as of Tuesday night with both agents and other teams (with a trade more likely at this point) portraying the market as remarkably strong.

"Everyone's popular. … Each respective team or agent, there's at least five teams that are hot and heavy," Friedman said. "So either we have really good taste, or we're not necessarily getting the straight scoop."

• Coax a better performance from B.J. Upton, who had a disappointing 2009 season, and either get more from or get rid of Dioner Navarro and Pat Burrell, who were even worse, with the idea that the lineup, with Jason Bartlett likely returning to the leadoff spot, can be dynamic.

"Everybody is going to talk about the additions everybody else is making, talking about Granderson, and I've always said God bless the Yankees or the Red Sox or whatever, but I like our names," Maddon said.

"I like our names a lot. We've had a lot of experience over the last couple years, and I think we've learned a lot of good lessons. I have a lot of confidence in our group, playing well and getting back to the top next year within our division. I have a lot of confidence in our group."

• Take measures to make sure they don't repeat the 8-14 start that put them in an early hole from which they never escaped.

"The biggest thing is to get off to a better start, obviously," Maddon said. "If you look at last season, the poor April really did hurt us a lot and then an 11-game losing streak and then we ended up winning 84 games, which is really good in spite of all of those negative situations. …

"I think part of the poor start last year was the residue of the previous year, which was a good thing, because we got to the World Series, guys went through that longer season for the very first time."

The Rays made the tactical decision to take it slow in spring training, but Maddon said in retrospect that it was too late by then — that it was the "postseason hangover" that hurt them. "Just us dealing with the success and learning how to deal with it properly and move on from there," he said.

They won't have that problem coming off a third-place finish, and Maddon is already working on his "good start" speech for the first gathering in Port Charlotte.

"I like to talk about these things out front," he said. "I don't want it to be reactive, and I want our players to understand it and that's what I'm going to talk about in spring training."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays happy with team, continue to look for upgrades as Yankees get better 12/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 10:07pm]
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