PORT CHARLOTTE — When last we saw them, they were walking away from the disappointment. Their heads were down, and their voices were quiet, and there was underachievement spray-painted all over their season.
Why then should we believe this season will be better?
As the familiar faces shuffled through the familiar drills, a team reunited on its first day of full-squad workouts, this is the only question that matters. Five months after finishing a letdown season, can the Tampa Bay Rays return from the land of the lost?
Yes, they will tell you. Around here, in the sunshine-and-lollipops world of spring training, the Rays sound fairly sure of it. Already, they have been anointed as the Most Talented Team in Franchise History, and team officials already have noodled Meaningful Games into the September portions of their day planners. If this team doesn't contend, a lot of people are going to be disappointed.
Still, the memories of how completely last season slipped away are still fresh. The Rays were 19 games back, remember? They lost 11 straight in September. They ended up with 84 victories, which was 13 fewer than in the previous season.
Why should we believe this season will be better?
Maybe, just maybe, it's because the players seem so sure of it.
"In 2008, we learned all the easy lessons," reliever J.P. Howell said. "Last year, we learned all the hard lessons. And because of it, we had to watch other teams play in the postseason."
So how many more can this team win than last year?
"I'd say 16 games," Howell said. "That gives us 100 wins. If we can get 100, we'll take it. If you look at how many games we gave away, you could argue 20. You could get to 105. But I'll say 100."
Throughout the clubhouse, you hear the same sort of confidence. You hear about added maturity, although it has only been 20 weeks or so since the team stopped playing. You hear about better chemistry, although the team is fairly intact. You hear about added wisdom, although the teams in New York and Boston seem to combat wisdom fairly well with dollars.
Part of this, of course, is the sound of spring training, where everyone seems confident. In spring training, players coming off bad seasons are always going to be good, and players coming off good seasons are going to be great, and injured players are going to be healthy, and newcomers are going to be perfect fits. In the spring, no one ever seems to raise an eyebrow.
Another part, however, is this team has had a taste of success. And, yes, if you judge by talent alone, this team should be pretty good. (Baseball Prospectus has predicted an improvement of nine victories.)
"I guess it's just the swagger we have right now," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "I think everyone is here for a purpose, to win and to go back to the playoffs. It's easier said than done, because everyone had that same thought last year. But sometimes, you learn a lot more in your failures than your successes. Not that last season was a failure, but it should have been more."
Maybe that's the first clue to why this Rays team should be better. They were just so darned disappointing last year. The bullpen wasn't as consistent, and the defense wasn't as sharp, and the starting pitching had some early bad patches, and the hitters struck out 1,229 times (second most in the American League). In other words, no matter what irked you about the Rays last year, you had a point.
"I think we're more balanced," pitcher James Shields said. "Overall, we have the right intangibles. Our defense is good. Our offense is good. Starting pitching is pretty solid. The relievers are pretty solid.
"Absolutely, I think we'll be better. You've got to like what you see on our team right now."
Why should the Rays be better? The young arms — David Price, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann — have more experience. The older arms — Shields and Matt Garza — still aren't old. The new arm — Rafael Soriano — should reduce the 22 blown saves. Longoria and Carl Crawford are stars. The disappointments — Pat Burrell, B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro — can't be worse. The surprises — Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist — might slip some, but they should both be good players.
So, yeah, the team should be better. Will that be enough to catch the Yankees? The Red Sox? Who knows? Two years ago, 97 wins were enough to win the AL East. Last year, it took 103.
"What makes us better than last year is our maturity level is higher than it was," Zobrist said. "We have to have a better start, we have to realize the mistakes we made and fix those. I think today is the beginning of that process.
"If you're gonna look at how many fewer games we lost last year, you have to look at the difference between 2007 and 2008 (when the Rays improved by 31 victories)."
As for manager Joe Maddon, he talks about getting off to a better start. He talks about finishing the games stronger — tacking on runs when the team has a lead, playing better defense, getting more comfortable fits out of the setup men.
Why should we believe this season is going to be better?
Because, frankly, anything fewer than 95 victories is going to disappoint Tampa Bay all over again.