PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- What I like, and dislike, about the Rays:
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• Manager Joe Maddon and the Rays' system. Remember the old days when Tampa Bay debuted with 10 consecutive losing seasons? Now in his seventh season, Maddon has had teams finish above .500 in five consecutive years, making the playoffs in three of those seasons, winning two division titles and playing in one World Series.
“Joe keeps it loose and allows the young guys to be themselves,” said Jack Cust, a 10-year veteran who spent time with six different organizations before coming to the Rays this spring. “It's different than other places. If you're an older guy, sometimes you see young kids who don't really respect the journey and it rubs you the wrong way, depending on the kid. Here these guys are given such leeway and freedom, and the kids are great and don't go too far. Everyone is respectful of each other's space but is loose and has fun.”
As the sign hanging in the clubhouse reads, one of John Wooden's best quotes ever: “Discipline yourself so no one else has to.” True in many aspects of life.
• Maddon System II: Since the Rays' '08 World Series season, Tampa Bay owns the third-best record in the majors. Only the Yankees and Phillies have fared better. They've also bagged five major Baseball Writers' Association of America awards, more than any other team in the majors: Price's Cy last year, Maddon's AL Manager of the Year trophies in 2008 and 2011, Evan Longoria's 2008 AL Rookie of the Year and Jeremy Hellickson's 2011 AL Rookie of the Year.
• Cy Young winner David Price and Rays pitching. The Rays staff last year led the majors with a 3.19 ERA, produced a .228 opponents' batting average and set an AL record with 1,383 strikeouts. Only four AL pitchers since 1980 have matched Price's 2012 numbers of 20 wins, 205 strikeouts and a 2.56 ERA: Roger Clemens (1986, 1990, 1997), Pedro Martinez (1999, 2002), Justin Verlander (2011) and Randy Johnson (1997). And only two AL lefties have matched them over the past 40 years: Johnson and Ron Guidry (1978).
• Only Tampa Bay could get away with planning to use four second basemen, calling it a “quadtoon” (Maddon's expansion of the word “platoon”) and have you believing it probably will work. The four who will see second base action this year: Kelly Johnson, Ryan Roberts, Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist.
• Where's the beef? Aside from Evan Longoria (assuming good health), you look at this lineup and wonder where the home runs will come from. Luke Scott (14 last year)? Ben Zobrist (20)? Desmond Jennings (13)? Matt Joyce (17)? Kelly Johnson (16)? There are no big-time mashers here. But there are enough hitters that if everything goes just right. … “No, honestly, I think we have plenty of power,” Maddon says when asked if he's worried about lack of pop. “Luke Scott, Longo, Desmond Jennings can surprise you, Zobrist. We have home runs in the lineup. I think Yunel Escobar can surprise you. There's power. It's frequency of power that we've got to get to. I believe it's there.”
• The Rays were uncharacteristically sloppy in the field last year, committing the most errors in the AL after producing the fewest in 2011. Maddon ties that to Longoria's extended absence at third. He patched as best he could with Sean Rodriguez, Ryan Roberts, Elliott Johnson, Jeff Keppinger, Reid Brignac, Brooks Conrad … eventually, the dam burst. In the what a difference a year makes department, Maddon thinks this year will be way better. “I think it will be our tightest defense ever,” he says. “When we had Longo, Jason Bartlett (shortstop), Aki (Akinora Iwamura, second base) and Carlos Pena (first base), that was pretty good. This is right there. If we keep them on the field, you're going to see some spectacular defense this year.”
• Poor attendance at Tropicana Field. The Rays do everything right, they produce terrific young players, they win, they've got some of the best pitching in baseball and yet the still play before some of the smallest crowds in the majors. Maddon thinks this year's infield defense will be among Tampa's best ever, he loves the bullpen (Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth and others), and the last team to miss the playoffs with an ERA as low as Tampa's 3.19 in 2012 was the 1975 Baltimore Orioles. There is so much to see. If you live in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area … go see it.