Standing on the field with 62 blue-clad players sitting in front of them before Monday's first full-squad workout of the spring, the long offseason that saw nearly half their team leave via free agency and trades officially over, the two top Rays couldn't help but enjoy the view. "As I'm looking at everybody, that's the part that really struck me," manager Joe Maddon said. "We did lose a lot, but my goodness, we've got a lot here, too." "As much physical talent in this camp," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, "as we've ever had." Much of the focus the next five weeks will be on the field, as they sort out who will play where and sift through the dozen mostly inexperienced candidates to fill out the bullpen that is the only glaring weakness as they seek to defend their American League East championship. But the more important work will be done in the clubhouse, on bus rides, during informal and casual sessions before and after workouts and even away from the complex as they transform the collection of players into a team, developing the camaraderie and the chemistry that is an integral part of their success.
"That's huge," Maddon said. "To be good, to be good in baseball, to be good where we play, that is really, really important to have that togetherness going on. It's getting them out there, getting them intermingled, having a joke now and then, the work ethic, getting involved in drills, these meetings that we're doing, all this stuff hopefully to bring the group together."
The smiles were abundant Monday, the mood light and the laughter at times loud, especially when travel director Jeff Ziegler cracked up the group at the end of the preworkout meeting with a joke that used their biggest name acquisition, Manny Ramirez, as the punch line.
Ramirez laughed with them — "a pretty big guffaw," according to Maddon — then said the feeling is mutual.
"We've got a great bunch of guys," Ramirez said. "We getting along very well inside, now we're going to go outside and take it to the field."
"I think our main focus in spring training is to work on that chemistry," veteran starter James Shields said. "To work on getting to know each other, to really develop that relationship with each other to move on and win."
The Rays know it can't be forced, especially with 25 of the 62 players (including 13 on the 40-man roster) new to the organization.
"You can't cheat chemistry," Friedman said. "You can't create it artificially."
Nor can it be rushed, said third baseman Evan Longoria, who will assume the clubhouse leadership role with Carlos Peña and Carl Crawford among the departed.
"That stuff is all going to take time, but the spring is long enough for that to happen," he said. "I think everyone in this clubhouse is enthused and excited to be here, and it's going to be a pretty cohesive group, a group of guys able to get along easily."
With just a few exceptions, that has been the case during much of their three-year run of success. Maddon prefers a light mood in the clubhouse and is constantly seeking team-building moments; Friedman boasts they encourage individualism.
Making their two main acquisitions Ramirez and Johnny Damon shouldn't do anything to change that, as Damon explained — on cue — by, somehow, sampling the 1985 Chicago Bears.
"Those guys got along great before," he said. "We're here to cause no trouble — we're not here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle, but we're here to cause no trouble. But it's good everyone has the same common goal."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.