LAKELAND — When Matt Joyce started in centerfield Thursday night against his former team, the Tigers, it was more than just a homecoming for the former Florida Southern standout.
It was a tryout of sorts, as Rays manager Joe Maddon said Joyce is "in the running" to make the team, with one possibility being the opening day centerfielder if B.J. Upton (left shoulder) isn't ready.
Although Joyce, 24, has been hampered by right leg tendinitis and made his first spring start in the outfield with a week left, Maddon said "realistically, he still has time" to prove he's ready.
"I think anything is possible," Joyce said. "Physically, I feel ready to go."
The Rays still want to get a better look at Joyce, whom they acquired in the trade of pitcher Edwin Jackson. They plan to try him at different outfield spots, and how he does defensively — as well as how his body responds — in the next week could help decide whether he sticks.
Thursday was a good start, with Joyce saying he felt great, while picking up his first spring hit, stealing a base and feeling comfortable in centerfield over six innings.
"I liked it," Maddon said, "I thought he was very smooth out there."
And Joyce is scheduled to be the DH today against the Twins in Fort Myers.
While the Rays will wait to see how he progresses, former Tiger teammates and coaches know what kind of impact a healthy Joyce could eventually have on Tampa Bay.
"I think that he can be a superstar," Placido Polanco said.
"I think he will be a 30 home run guy," Gary Sheffield said. "If he can command the strike zone like he does and can hit the curveball."
Said Curtis Granderson: "Everybody seems to talk about how you need a power left-handed bat, and I think he can definitely do that."
Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline said that even though Joyce has some things to learn, such as hitting the slow breaking ball, he will "put up some big numbers for the Rays if he stays there long.
"He's got enormous power to all fields — the ball just jumps off his bat. He's got an upside that is unbelievable if he stays healthy."
The Tigers saw it for themselves from Joyce last year, when the former 12th-round draft pick hit 10 home runs in his first 36 big-league games, an accomplishment matched by just three others in the past decade. Joyce finished hitting .252 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs in 92 games, playing left and rightfield. More than Joyce's power, the Tigers were impressed with how he handled his success and struggles "like a veteran," Brandon Inge said.
Pete Meyer, Joyce's coach at Florida Southern, said one reason why he has stayed so grounded is: "He's never had anything given to him. He was a kid probably overlooked in high school, probably overlooked a little bit in college. He had to work for it."
In fact, Meyer said Joyce was the sixth-best hitter on his 2005 national championship team; granted, Meyer said there were about 10 players drafted from that club, so Joyce was no slouch. "He wasn't the top prospect on the team," Meyer said. "But he was always in the mix."
Meyer said Joyce was spotted by the Tigers during their exhibition with Florida Southern at Joker Marchant Stadium, where Joyce returned Thursday night, playing in front of about a dozen family and friends.
"Fitting," his father, Matt Sr., said. "Really fitting."
Whether Joyce will be a fit with the Rays on opening day — only time will tell. He says his leg no longer is an issue, and his swing is "really close" to getting where he wants it to be. And after spending more time in the training room than the field for most of this spring — which was "hard to accept, hard to swallow" — Joyce said he's excited to just have a shot.