PORT CHARLOTTE — Manager Joe Maddon said the first couple of weeks of spring training have had an instructional league feel.
The Rays have been able to provide some hands-on teaching for their minor-leaguers. And they've had a chance to evaluate candidates for their very few roster questions (like the No. 5 starter and the bullpen).
But this weekend, another chapter begins: Their starting rotation and regular relievers from last season's World Series run get their first spring game action.
Carlos Peña, who is scheduled to make his spring debut today against the Pirates, says that integrating the core players together is crucial in getting on the same page for a possible sequel.
"It's always fun — that's the core of the team," Peña said. "We know it's spring training, but at the same time, we're on a path, we know the way we do things. And we're going to do them in spring training the same way we would during the World Series."
Maddon said the Rays' plan to ease their starters into the lineup (due to last year's lengthy postseason run) coincided perfectly with the longer spring training (caused by the World Baseball Classic). So when opening day starter James Shields pitches in his first game Saturday, he'll have about the same amount of preseason preparation that he usually would. Similarly, Peña said the month will be enough time for him to get ready.
In addition to the first outings for Shields (Saturday), Scott Kazmir (Monday), Matt Garza (Tuesday) and Andy Sonnanstine (Tuesday) — as well as touted prospect David Price (Tuesday) — the team will also incorporate key relievers such as Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and closer Troy Percival (Thursday).
Balfour admittedly won't be throwing his 95 mph fastball right away, and starters such as Shields will toss only a couple of innings at first. But the lineup card will begin looking a lot like the regular Rays.
"It's kind of nice to start getting them all out there," Maddon said. "It's going to be even more fun when we get them all playing at the same time."
Even with Peña returning today, the regular lineup won't be at full strength until Akinori Iwamura (playing for Japan in the WBC) returns and B.J. Upton heals from offseason shoulder surgery.
But fans will get to see more of the everyday players. The starters say some of the younger players — specifically pitchers Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Jason Hammel — have raised the bar with their spring performances, and, as Shields said, "put a little pressure on us."
"We're kind of chomping at the bit," Shields said. "It was a good rest. Good to watch these younger guys pretty much dominate. It kind of gave us a little boost in our step watching those guys."
Maddon pointed out they've taken it easy on the position players, too, pulling them from games early. He acknowledged that, from his experience as bench coach with the Angels in the 2002 World Series, a longer postseason run can add a strain on a team.
"When I was with the Angels and we won it, the next spring was way too fast," Maddon said. "And I thought guys that had been hurt didn't get a chance to get ready, and we pushed even those that were well. They had less time in the offseason to that point, then boom. Here it comes again.
"I just thought all of these components were in place to really slow things down and still have them get the same amount of work by the time they get to Day 1. … We might learn a lesson this year and like it even more."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org