PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — In the minutes after the Tampa Bay Rays’ clubhouse opened for the first time, David Price kept smiling.
About four months ago, the ace left-hander was written off among some — and even himself — as soon-to-be gone, bound to be traded, destined to join Matt Garza and James Shields as skilled arms dealt in recent years for value in the Rays’ ongoing quest to stay competitive in the American League East.
But ”continuity” was a popular word Friday at Charlotte Sports Park, and Price was a large reason why.
After all the uncertainty, the Seattle Mariners buzz and Masahiro Tanaka’s signing — after all the predictions that went bust before the sun rose on another pitchers’ and catchers’ report day here — the Rays began to remake themselves. And the key parts look much like they did last year.
”I’m definitely the happiest person in Port Charlotte,” Price said.
Price is one component of the chemistry that could make this Tampa Bay team special. Spring training is a time for hopes and big dreams, both as certain as the need for sunblock throughout southwest Florida this time of year.
Still, those visions aren’t misplaced with these Rays. This is a different squad than many, in the hours after the Boston Red Sox celebrated at Tropicana Field last October to close the ALDS, thought would arrive in these weeks. The core looks sound and much the same.
Price is back. So is James Loney. Closer Grant Balfour found a landing spot after a failed physical with the Baltimore Orioles. Ryan Hanigan was gained in a trade to offer a boost at catcher.
Pair those developments with guarantees like Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers, Yunel Escobar, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore, and itâs not out of the question for the Rays to ”eat last” in October like manager Joe Maddon wants them to do.
Their feast could be fine.
”There was that state of flux, mentally, ‘How is this going to play out?’ ” Maddon said of the offseason. ”Then, boom, James signs. Then all of the sudden, David doesn’t go anywhere. And then you add some really significant names like a Balfour toward the end of it. That really took a different twist.”
Those twists led to an interesting scene Friday morning in the clubhouse, where players went about their business in shorts and T-shirts and no vision appeared too large for the moment. Cobb spoke about a ”family brotherhood” that develops with comfort, Price spoke about having a nickname for ”probably 90 percent” of the guys there, outfielder David DeJesus spoke about knowing who the leaders are and following their direction, right-hander Chris Archer spoke about how ”there’s no unfamiliar face.”
”It’s a really tight-knit group,” said Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations. ”A lot of them work out together a lot during the offseason. So I think when you have that — to be able to continue it is a great thing. But continuity, just for the sake of it, obviously is not necessarily good. But because of the dynamic, the group that we have, I think it’s a real positive.”
Not long ago, Friedman saw that concept in action. On a recent Wednesday, he sat in his office at Tropicana Field and noticed two pitchers throwing bullpen sessions below.
Not far away, about 10 other players stood near the mounds, hanging on each pitch. Most had completed their workouts, but instead of showering and going about their days, they supported the pair throwing. High-fives were exchanged. The bond was obvious.
”I kind of stood up and went over to the window and admired it,” Friedman said. ”I can’t say this definitively, but I can’t imagine that happens many other places.”
The anecdote fits the month’s theme. There’s plenty of idealism in these weeks, found here in Florida and in Arizona’s dry air. There’s a sense in all clubhouses with hopes of contending that, ”Hey, if everything plays out as expected, this season can be special.”
Certainly, the path will be hard for the Rays to make that feeling a reality. The Red Sox lost little from their World Series roster, and the New York Yankees spent money in the offseason that would have made The Boss beam.
Then there’s the fact that for all the success the Rays have enjoyed in the Maddon/Friedman era, they’ve failed to advance beyond the ALDS in their past three postseason berths, dating to 2010.
There will be slumps. There will be grinds.
That’s baseball. That’s life within a 162-game test of will, luck and stamina.
Still, everything appears a bit brighter under the mid-February sun. A late-winter chill remains here, the heat of summer’s dog days far off.
”I think it’s endless,” DeJesus told FOX Sports Florida of the Rays’ potential. ”We don’t really know. We’ve just got to go out there and play with the tenacity to be able to win the division. We want to go out there and win the division. We know it’s going to be a tough task, but we have a lot of guys back who can play baseball and know how to play the game the right way. We’re excited this year, for sure.”
Yeah, the Rays are excited, excited to enjoy continuity, excited to welcome back so many key names.
Spring training is here, and so are the dreams, the drive.
”It’s interesting,” Maddon said. ”I’m eager about it.”