PORT CHARLOTTE — Alex Cobb looked around the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse in Port Charlotte on Friday morning, saw teammate David Price at his locker and a locker for James Loney and felt what?
“Comfortable,” Cobb said.
Price walked through the room and nodded at familiar faces at familiar lockers, and he knew the empty ones along the far wall for the veteran position players will be filled this week by the guys who filled them last spring.
“They’ve kind of kept the pieces together to this puzzle we had last year,” Price said.
Yes, Sam Fuld, Fernando Rodney, Luke Scott and Jose Lobaton — familiar faces — are gone, but the Rays return the bulk of the team that won 92 games last season and reached the AL Division Series.
The players are glad about that, and not only because the core of a successful team is back to make another run at October glory. They are glad because that is one way to keep a successful team successful.
“I think one of the problems last year was, when we got to spring training everyone was kind of cliquey, no one really meshed together. As a group, as a whole, nobody really knew each other too well,” Cobb said. “You could kind of see that attitude shift a little bit a quarter of the way, halfway through the season last year, guys starting to hang out, mess with each other in the clubhouse and just feeling comfortable.”
This year, Cobb said, the Rays get to skip the meet-and-greet part of team bonding.
“It’s exciting to wake up in the morning and think you get to go hang out with your buddies and play baseball, get better,” Cobb said. “It’s a big process to skip and just hit the ground running.”
Team chemistry is one of the Rays’ strong traits. It helps that the Rays are growing into a team that has been together for a number of years.
“I got nicknames for probably 90 percent of the guys in here,” Price said.
Continuity is a good thing.
But, as executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said, continuity for the sake of continuity is not always positive if you are bringing back the wrong players.
“But because of the dynamic, the group that we have, I think is a real positive,” Friedman said.
He offered an example.
Friedman was working in his office at Tropicana Field last Wednesday. From his window, he could see a number of players working out. At one point, Friedman noticed two pitchers throwing bullpen sessions while surrounded by 10 pitchers who had already completed their workouts.
“They had already thrown, and instead of going in, showering and getting out of there, they’re hanging out and watching each other’s bullpens and high-fiving,” he said. “I stood up and went over to the window and admired it. I can’t say this definitively, but I can’t imagine that happens in many other places. It’s a really tight-knit group. A lot of them work out together in the offseason. I think when you have that, to be able to continue it is a great thing.”
Yunel Escobar joins Loney as two new faces from last season who are back for more, and because of them the entire infield returns in whole. That’s only happened twice in franchise history.
The Rays have added a new closer but he also is a familiar face — Grant Balfour, who helped pitch the Rays to the 2008 World Series and the 2010 AL East title.
“Whenever you can keep a core group of guys together it just makes everything kind of go a little more smooth,” Price said. “You don’t have to wait a month and a half until everyone really gets comfortable. You can come out here the first day of spring training, the first game of spring training, everybody is comfortable in the locker room, out on the field, in the dugout. It really brings the most out of your players when they can be comfortable in their own skin.”
It’s a new season, but with many of the same faces in the clubhouse, Cobb said it feels as if the Rays haven’t skipped a beat.
“It’s groundhog day,” he said. “Just show back up in the locker room, there’s your buddies, let’s go play ball again.”