Rays On A Roll In The Off-Season

The feel-good feeling feels fine, thank you.

For those keeping score, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are still pitching shutouts. Still undefeated in the off-season. Still scoring PR coups during football and hockey season.

Even Devil Rays’ press conferences are upgrades. The most recent one, the well-orchestrated announcing of Joe Maddon as manager, had a nice buffet spread — with no side orders of Naimoli. The principals – President Matt Silverman, Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations Gerry Hunsicker and Maddon – were accessible, affable and lingered late. No one wore a Hawaiian shirt or a disingenuous expression.

The message: We are big league, and we will act like it. Neat concept.

Maddon, 51, was as billed: the quintessential, new-age field boss for the “Moneyball” generation of Major League Baseball executives. College educated, computer literate, podium savvy. Upbeat and personable. Known as a “player’s coach” when he was with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Also known as a numbers guy.

Friedman saw a lot of them first-hand. At the first interview. That’s when Maddon strode in with a thick binder of Rays’ statistical information. The executive veep was impressed.

“He’s extremely prepared,” understated Friedman. “And there’s also a willingness to embrace new ideas. We liked his enthusiasm for the game; we liked his scouting and player-development background; we liked his communication skills. He has the full skill set.”

A sense of humor was in evidence as was a familiarity with the mainstream culture that spawns all of today’s players.

“Well, they say 50 is the new 30,” Maddon noted drolly. “I have no problem relating to younger players. I like ’em. I get involved in their culture a little bit. It’s fun. I think you can separate business from having a good time. Interpersonal relationships matter. You need that balance. There’s enough pressure from the outside world. We don’t need to apply any more.”

He even managed to look credible and sound serious while sporting that goofy mismatched ensemble required of all new managers: baseball cap plus uniform jersey incongruously draped over a dress shirt and tie.

He put into context his well-publicized utilization of computers. “It’s a tool,” he explained. “I like numbers, but I also like instincts. I think with my brain, my heart and my gut.”

Maddon also made it clear that fundamentals were not a part of the game to be relegated to spring training. He underscored “situational hitting and situational base running.”

He then put the consummate competitor’s spin on much-maligned Tropicana Field.

“Well, it’s unique,” he said diplomatically. “But it can be a home-field advantage. You can take advantage of the nuances of a ballpark. I’d like to make it into a (deafening) pit for visiting teams. A place where people hate to come here to play.”

Maddon was candid on Rays’ shortcomings and complimentary on what he personally saw of them last year. The Rays beat the division-winning Angels five out of nine in 2005.

“The pitching needs to be improved upon,” he said, “and the defense definitely needs to be improved upon.” He’s also a “big bullpen guy,” he emphasized. “You need four functional guys out there you can pitch when you’re even or ahead.”

For those reading between the lines, this is further confirmation that the Rays will not be in the free-agent hunt for any pricey starting pitchers. It also shows that Maddon and Hunsicker, the general manager in all but title, are on the same page.

“The fastest way to improve your pitching staff is through your bullpen,” asserted Hunsicker. “If you can own the last three innings, you’re on your way to dramatically improving your team.”

Maddon lauded the Rays for “a great group of young, offensive players. The nucleus is great.” He said they were “tough to play against” and nobody in pennant contention, including the Angels, “wanted to see those guys.”

And now “those guys” are his guys.

Three years ago Vince Naimoli brought in Lou Piniella. However accomplished and popular, Piniella wasn’t the right guy in the right situation. Probably no one would have been. It was called the return of the native.

Now the Rays are “Under Construction.” Business acumen, marketing smarts and public relations savvy are in. As is a 10-20% hike in payroll. League-wide credibility has ratcheted up with new principal owner Stuart Sternberg and the recent addition of Hunsicker, a well-regarded baseball insider.

Now the Rays of Sternberg have added Joe Maddon, who comes with the highest of recommendations from his Angels’ tenure that included the better part of a decade as bench coach. The Angels reached the playoffs in three of the past four seasons and won the 2002 World Series. Credibility begets more credibility.

Call it an early return on investment.

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