ST. PETERSBURG — The first clue it would be an offseason of change for the Rays came in early November when outfielder David DeJesus agreed to a two-year deal that paid him less for 2014 than he would have made had the team picked up his option for this season.
“I felt this was the perfect opportunity to win a championship,” DeJesus said last week.
So did the Rays, because after DeJesus, they went about assembling what could end up as the best team in franchise history.
They traded for a catcher who they believe is an upgrade and added depth to the back end of the bullpen on the same December day.
They paid handsomely by anyone's standard to re-sign first baseman James Loney.
They replaced one all-star closer with another all-star closer.
Ace pitcher David Price was not traded.
When the offseason was over, the Rays gathered for spring training in Port Charlotte with the payroll in the neighborhood of $80 million — an all-time high for the franchise.
So, too, are expectations.
“Something special is happening, and we feel that,” DeJesus said. “When we walked into the clubhouse that first day (of spring training) and saw all the jerseys up in the lockers, I felt, man, this is a good team we have this year. This is our opportunity to go and take that championship.”
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This is how it is supposed to be, right?
A playoff team filled with young talent not only hangs on to that talent, but also adds talent in the offseason with the idea of playing deeper into the playoffs, perhaps of winning it all.
The Rays added nearly $20 million to last year's payroll. Price received $14 million for this season, the largest one-year deal in team history. Loney is back for three years at $21 million, the richest contract given to a free agent under Stuart Sternberg's ownership. Grant Balfour, who left after the 2010 season as a setup man in the bullpen, returns after two years as the closer in Oakland on a two-year, $12 million deal.
The Rays have the same infield featuring four Gold Glove finalists and largely the same rotation as the one that helped them win 92 games last season and the American League wild card.
The Rays really didn't change much over the offseason, and around here that represents a change — a playoff team returning nearly intact.
“It's what every group would like to do, and I think groups that have been highly successful for many years have been able to do that, i.e. the New York Yankees,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “They were able to do that with the right people.”
The Rays will rely on chemistry as much as pitching and defense and what they expect to be a little more punch from the bats.
They will compete for a playoff spot in the unforgiving AL East, home to the free-spending Yankees ($200 million payroll) and Boston Red Sox ($150 million). The Red Sox who just happen to be the defending World Series champions. Baltimore ($102 million) opened its checkbook this season. Toronto ($127 million) did so last year only to see the season blow up because of injuries and poor pitching, but the Blue Jays still have a dangerous lineup.
“I feel very, very good about where we are,” third baseman Evan Longoria said. “Having as few questions marks as we do at this point, you can't help but have a positive outlook on the way things are right now and the prospect of what could be. I really love our team. I really love the way things have shaped up. I think the collective mindset of the group is just as good if not better than it's ever been at this point.”
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In past offseasons, the Rays tried to stretch the dollar. They signed low-end free agents who projected high-end return if placed in the right situation. They took a risk on the problem child, nurturing and coddling him until the risk became the reward.
The former was Loney, who in 2013 brought his unfulfilled promise to Tampa Bay and enjoyed a career year. The latter was shortstop Yunel Escobar, whose flashy play in the middle of the infield fit perfectly in the team dynamic. Loney was one of the big names on the free-agent market, and the Rays stepped out of their business model to bring him back. Picking up Escobar's $5 million option was a bargain.
When Longoria signed his $100 million contract extension before the 2013 season, he did so with the understanding that management would surround him with a winning team. He said the work done during the winter by executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and his staff is proof that ownership is committed to fielding winning teams.
“This year probably built the strongest case with what they want to do, bringing the right guys in. If you were on the outside looking in, you'd say the moves make sense,” Longoria said. “They needed that and they went outside and got it, as opposed to going out and picking from here and picking from there, get a couple of pieces and hope they work out.”
Pitcher Alex Cobb talked about the 2014 Rays the day before camp opened. He said it still felt as if it was 2013 only with a longer break between games. That is good, Cobb said, because the awkward getting-to-know-you period occurred last season. Now it's time for the Rays to continue where they left off in October.
“You realize what it was like to have been a Brooklyn Dodger or an old St. Louis Cardinal, where the same group came back on a consistent basis,” Maddon said. “The same guys showed up every year. That had to be pretty neat.”
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The additions of catcher Ryan Hanigan, relief pitcher Heath Bell and Balfour to an already-talented roster and another year of Price bring external expectations.
The Rays are one of a small number of teams mentioned as a World Series participant and even the World Series champions.
Maddon, during his annual news conference on the eve of the spring's first workout, said he expects his team to win it all. He unleashed his slogan for the season, “Eat Last,” taken from the book, “Leaders Eat Last” and tweaked it to mean the Rays will be the last team to eat because they were busy winning their first World Series championship.
Quite the bold statement, yet Maddon is not shy about his fondness for his team to aim high.
And neither are his players.
“We've been to the playoffs, we've experienced that enough times. Now I feel like we want to take it to that next level,” Price said. “We were able to get to the World Series in 2008 and I guess come in second. We want to get over that hump. We want to do something special in this locker room. We feel like we have the right guys in this locker room to make something special happen.”
Ah, but it's one thing to set a goal and another to reach.
The Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, Orioles and Yankees, all playoff teams in 2012, did not reach the postseason in 2013. Neither did the San Francisco Giants, the defending World Series champions.
The Red Sox finished last in 2012. They ate last in 2013.
That's why when Maddon talks about winning titles, Sternberg and Friedman talk about playing meaningful games in September. If you're fortunate to be in the playoff race in September, and you win enough of those meaningful games, you have a chance to play in the postseason.
“It's a very, very long season,” Price said. “To be able to put yourself into that position speaks volumes about everybody in the clubhouse, the players, the coaching staff.”
It begins with a belief. Even the Red Sox felt good about their chances at this time last year.
And the Rays believe.
“You have to have expectations,” relief pitcher Joel Peralta said. “You don't want to go into the season thinking we're not good enough. We're not going to put up a fight. But we do, and I think we have a really good team.”
One more thing: There's nothing like watching the Red Sox celebrate their AL division series title on your field to add fuel to your desire.
“It was tough to suck it in. It could be you out there,” Peralta said. “But they were a better team last year. That was last year, though.”