PORT CHARLOTTE — Dark clouds of smoke from a brush fire just beyond the Charlotte Sports Park provided an ironic backdrop Tuesday as top Rays officials tried to take the focus off the massive number of players they lost from their division championship team and look at the squad they have.
The Rays already do things differently, from how they build a team that can compete with the Yankees and Red Sox despite a payroll less than one-third the size to how they play the game with an emphasis on speed and defense, even to how they think.
So faced with the extreme makeover required by the departure of 11 free agents and two key players in trade, manager Joe Maddon found inspiration in the realization it was just an extension of their philosophy. And from that sudden revelation came forth the theme he will share with the pitchers and catchers before today's first workout and reinforce regularly throughout the spring:
"The Rays way and 'Another Way' are almost synonymous, and that kind of smacked me in the face this offseason," Maddon said. "Going into this year, we're going to have to figure out another way to win. And we're going to do that."
Without the gimmicky math of 9=8 or '09 > '08 or the acronymology of WIN (What's Important Now), Maddon believes he has a way to move the conversation past the losses — "a slight exodus,'' he claimed — of former stars such as Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano and six other relievers and onto what, in their own ways, the players they have are capable of doing.
"There's all these little kind of like flaws about us in a sense, and in spite of it, we've still been able to overcome these things to the point where we've become rather successful," he said.
"So coming into this season, why not just choose another way to get back to the playoffs. Minus Carl, minus Carlos, minus Jason, minus Matt, the bullpen, these very important cogs we've had the last year and the last couple of years. That speaks to all the little quirkiness about us. But at the end of the day, a lot of this quirkiness really reveals the character and the team concept we play from within."
There are some things they will have to do a different way, such as not having — unless someone emerges or arrives — a designated closer in their still under reconstruction bullpen that they acknowledge is the biggest key to their success. "I'm going into the season pretty much fully well expecting to go committee-wise," Maddon said.
Also, more of an emphasis on offense (given the additions of veteran hitters Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez), on baserunning and defense (as more teams join them in playing that style) and maximizing matchups with even more platooning and lineup shuffling.
And players who were given somewhat soft landings in past seasons — such as infielders Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez, outfielder Matt Joyce, catcher John Jaso — will be presented with additional opportunities and responsibilities.
"I'm looking at them now becoming the household names,'' Maddon said.
Despite the losses, the Rays remain optimistic, figuring that with the core of returning players, led by Evan Longoria, David Price and B.J. Upton; the quality of their starting pitching; and the additions they have made, there will still be a way.
And if anything, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said they are taking it as even more of a challenge to construct and create a team that remains capable of winning the 90-plus games to remain competitive in the AL East.
"That's what we're shooting for," Friedman said, "and to get there we have to do it a different way."
"Another way," Maddon corrected.
"Another way," Friedman said, "is even better."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.