PORT Charlotte, Fla. -- Spring is officially here. Well, actually it begins on March 20 (or even longer, if you believe that darn varmint up in Punxsutawney…which begs the question, how can Phil see his shadow if it’s a cloudy day seemingly every year on HIS DAY, but I digress). But on this clear, 75-degree Monday afternoon in Port Charlotte, the eternal hope of the season, the baseball season, officially arrived with Rays manager Joe Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman taking questions on the boardwalk in centerfield at Charlotte Sports Park. Maddon and Friedman addressed the high expectations of the Rays this season (the talk on the national circuit has many “experts” picking the Rays as the American League Champions), the loaded pitching staff, the quality of depth, the emergence of Matt Moore and the questions on Tim Beckham’s future at shortstop. Maddon and Friedman also spoke about their appreciation for such knowledgeable and passionate fans and how they hope the momentum from the September run will carry over into better attendance at Tropicana Field this year. I will be in Port Charlotte all week with my editor, John Gregg, and we will keep you up-to-date on the new acquisitions and the prospects.
Friedman on Matt Moore: "He’s been brought along methodically, been built up in a pretty systematic way, and there’s always concern when a guy is that young and getting into the full grind of a major league season for the first time. It’s definitely something we’re going to be aware of; whether he starts the year in the big leagues or in Triple-A as yet to be determined, good thing about depth is that you don’t have to give anyone a job. It’s not given by default. Guys are going to earn jobs on this team. From an innings stand-point, it’s something we’re going to be mindful and aware of, whether he’s here or in Triple-A, but for the most part, he’s been built up in such a big way, it’s not the same as others have in the past."
Friedman on starting pitching when asked if the team will move Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann to the bullpen or trade one of them: "We don’t view it as having three first-baseman. When you have seven, eight starters over the course of 162 games, going back to 2008, we used a minimum of seven, one year, nine starting pitchers, and with the razor thin margin in this division and what can be the difference between moving on and staying home, we don’t view it as having an abundance of starting pitching and it’s something we’re not flippant about. It’s something if we’re able to maintain, if there’s ways we can improve the roster we will do so (through a trade)."
Maddon on Beckham: "I want to see where he’s at. I’m a big fan. I think this kid’s going to be a very good major league baseball player. I think he’s made some really good adjustments and progress over the past couple of years. I really liked his last spring training. He did some nice things with the bat to make it better, and I heard his defense was very good last year also. We have some ideas. We’re going to sit back and talk about it."
Maddon on the possibility of moving Beckham to the outfield, similar to what the Rays did with B.J. Upton: "Anything’s possible all the time, but that’s not what we’re doing right yet. I think you need to give a guy or a kid a chance to play things out. I’m not going to say it’s never going to happen and then again, it may never happen. We like to talk to the guys, talk to the coaches and try to create a plan for everybody and look at what you have on the major league level, where may the openings may be, and if this guy suddenly gets it and how would he be able to fit in and then you start trying to build his minor league program with that in mind. That’s what we’re getting at with him right now. We have to look at what we have here and where we think he’s at regarding progress coming through the minor league system and then you start making adjustments if you have to, or you keep it the same, but that’s a big part of this conversation we’re going to have here."
Friedman on expectations: "When you take a step back and take a big picture view, for us to have those expectations, it’s a good thing. It’s never a problem and it’s never something you shy away from. All off-season, eight to 20 guys were working out there on the field (at Tropicana Field) three times a week for the entire off season. It speaks to the culture we’ve created and the process is in place. Whether there’s extremely high expectations or not, they’re focused on the process to compete and they’ve gotten to the point with the culture Joe’s created where it might be a risk in other places, but here it isn’t. The culture we’ve created, guys don’t think we’re that good and we don’t have to work hard. I think expectations are a good thing. We don’t shy away from. It’s something we want we take that as a compliment. We’re mindful and cognizant in the division we play in. Our focus throughout the postseason is to put ourselves in position where we can be playing competitive games in September and that’s how we judge a successful off-season, a successful spring training. We feel like we can do that and we do. We feel like we have the requisite talent on hand to put us in position to be playing competitive games in September, and once you get to that point (of the postseason) then you start thinking bigger from that point, but in this division you can’t possibly think beyond that."
Maddon on expectations in the AL East and having a tough early schedule: "I’m looking at our success in the past and it’s been built off of really good starts. Last year was different. We had a lot of different things going on with guys leaving. This year, we have new guys coming in. Carlos has been here before. Luke Scott, we’ve done a lot of talking with. J-Mo (Jose Molina), I’ve known a long time. (Jeff) Keppinger and I have had some conversations on the phone. I’ve talked to a lot of these guys coming in and I really believe there really strong veteran presence with good makeup, good clubhouse personalities. I really believe the transition for them and for us is going to be a little easier. The social learning curve will be different because these guys are veteran guys and they’ve been there, done that. Having a good start, regardless of who we’re playing, is going to be very important to us."
Maddon on expectations of making the playoffs every season: "We want to get to the World Series. I think we’re very capable of getting there. The expectations are great. That means you’ve probably done things well in the past. I like the challenge of this group. I feel comfortable I’m going to be able to walk in the door and do my job because the guys are going to do their job. They’ve been successful, it’s about all of us doing our job on a daily basis, be excited about it but never become overconfident about it. We’re at the point now where every time we show up here, our goal is to make the post-season and with that, it’s about winning the World Series. We not only want to get to the playoffs, we want to get deep into the playoffs and we want to get to the World Series. If you don’t aim high enough, the threat is you’re not going to hit your mark."
Maddon on power potential: "Power is something we identified and wanted to do something about. The biggest obstacle, task, is establishing a batting order with flow. It has potential to be very big from one to nine on a nightly basis. Anytime you can add a bat like Carlos Pena, in the past couple years, our power potential has been underestimated and I think you’re going to see guys who now are more veteran and have a better understanding at the plate, you’re going to see more power out of them. The challenge is to create balance in batting order."
Friedman on competition: "There aren’t a lot of jobs. The one thing is with the 59 guys in camp, we have more depth than in the past. Depth is a good thing. There aren’t many openings, but last spring, Brandon Gomes made an impression on all of us. That impression went a long way."
Maddon on competition: "There’s not many jobs open right now. It doesn’t change a whole lot, right now, how we’re lining up. We’re just getting guys ready for the season, make sure guys are healthy, line guys up a week in advance. We’re really well-planned. It’s a little different because the competition is different."
Friedman on addressing offensive needs in the off-season with maintaining defensive philosophy of Maddon: "We were phenomenal defensively (first in the AL). Joe put up the Gold Glove in the clubhouse as a reminder of how important defense is. We caught line drives at a very, very high rate last year and with that, we want to repeat that type of defense. It’s something that we’ll continue to work on putting together and it’s something we talked about in terms of improving offense while maintaining a high level of defense."
Friedman on fans coming to games this season: "I think our fans are as knowledgeable and as passionate as they come. I’ll have people come up to me in the store and talk about someone’s splits or this guy against lefties. It’s amazing how passionate they are. I think what we’ve been able to accomplish, we’ve earned the trust of a lot of fans and I think it’s going to be a good year. The raised expectations and the optimism is going to translate into a lot more fans coming to watch."
Maddon on the fans: "I hope the momentum we’ve built up in September…it was a very magical two months and I think what the Rays did towards the end of last year…the FanFest was a buzz. It was great to interact with people. There’s a definite buzz going on and it’s tied to what we did towards the end of last season."
Maddon on Yankees general manager Brian Cashman’s comments about the Yankees letting the Rays take the Division so they could rest their starters:" I was kind of surprised by it a little bit, I was."
Based in St. Petersburg, Fla., Chris Girandola has been a sports journalist for over eight years and is currently the Rays Senior Writer for RaysDigest.com. His other writing credits include MLB.com, the Associated Press, St. Petersburg Times, Naples News, Florida Football Magazine, KentuckyBasketball Magazine, and Tampa Bay Business Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @cgrand
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