After creating masterpieces with Maddon, uncertainty awaits Rays

Under Joe Maddon, the Rays made the playoffs four times.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Words will be spoken about moving forward and focusing on the future because they must be. The Tampa Bay Rays are larger than one person, of course. No man serves as a franchise’s lone heart, and when he leaves, the whole structure doesn’t shrivel and die.

Yet Joe Maddon’s choice to opt-out of his contract and become a free agent feels like a stiff blow. It’s a stunning separation from a comfortable status quo since the manager grew from an unknown and matured into a wizard who transformed Tampa Bay’s baseball desert into a surprise oasis that produced four playoff berths and five seasons with at least 90 victories since 2008.

The telling sentence, a sharp prick, is there in black and white from Stuart Sternberg as part of the principal owner’s 92-word statement released Friday afternoon: "He will not be managing the Rays in 2015."

Sternberg said Rays management "tried diligently and aggressively" to extend Maddon for a third time before the manager’s current contract was scheduled to expire after next season. Andrew Friedman’s departure to the Los Angeles Dodgers allowed Maddon the option to opt-out, and since Maddon and the Rays were far apart in talks, a relationship that seemed like it would last many more years reached an abrupt end.

"We have more than 300 people in our organization who are committed to making the Rays a great source of pride for Tampa Bay," said Matt Silverman, the Rays’ president of baseball operations. "We have hundreds of players who will be part of our current and future successes, and I’m very optimistic about our future. Our best days are ahead of us, both on the field and off the field. And I’m confident that we’ll look back upon these weeks and recognize that our organization has grown stronger in the face of this adversity."

Perhaps that will happen one day, but for now, there’s some sadness in Maddon’s departure, perhaps more so than when Friedman decided earlier this month to chase new challenges on the West Coast. Friedman was the whiz behind the curtain, a fine analytical mind who worked in the background as the Rays earned one accolade after another in a remarkable six-year run: The American League East titles in 2008 and 2010, the wild-card berths in 2011 and 2013, the consistent play that frustrated richer division rivals in the Northeast.

But Maddon was the face of the main act, the lead voice of a band that changed parts often from Carlos Pena to James Loney, from Jason Bartlett to Yunel Escobar, from B.J. Upton to Desmond Jennings, from Matt Garza to Alex Cobb and on and on.

There were the dress-up trips and the clubhouse animals, there were the wine glasses on Maddon’s desk and the Mr. Joe-tato Heads in the stands, there were the words like "Aug-tember" and "Poom" that became part of Maddon’s postgame news conferences and the assumption that the Rays and their manager, a tight and quirky fit, would remain that way for many more tomorrows.

Through the years

Life throws curveballs, though. Maddon should be excited about the chance to choose his next destination, and it’s no surprise that there will be plenty of interest.

FOX Sports MLB Insider Ken Rosenthal reports that four to five "legit suitors," including the Chicago Cubs, could wait to woo Maddon. The number of potential landing spots is evidence of the respect that Maddon and the Rays gained throughout the past seven seasons, work that will be recalled as one of baseball’s best building jobs in recent memory.

"I have to talk to people," Maddon told Rosenthal. "I have interest everywhere right now. I’ve got to hear what everyone has to say."

The Rays, meanwhile, must listen to trusted voices from within. They are at a crossroads. They end Friday as a different organization, at least in the clubhouse, than in the moments before Maddon made up his mind to leave.

The next choice for manager must avoid the temptation to walk in Maddon’s shadow, one that grew large with 754 regular-season victories in a Rays uniform. Whether the next pick is someone within the franchise, such as bench coach Dave Martinez, or another face from the outside, a strong but independent voice must be a desired trait in the search.

After all, the perception of the Rays’ managerial position has changed because of Maddon. Tampa Bay is no longer a sleepy AL East also-ran that serves as a punching bag for heavy hitters in Boston and New York, which was the case for most of the lazy summer days that passed between 1998 and 2007.

With Maddon, the Rays proved that they could swing back. They did so often with more smarts and savvy than wealthier rivals. They still have Cobb, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, plus young talents who have shown promise such as Kevin Kiermaier, Jake Odorizzi and Wil Myers.

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The trusted lead voice is gone, a significant loss. There will be challenges to come to fill that current silence, and there’s no guarantee the results ahead will be as pleasing as the ones the Rays have left behind.

But come next spring, when renewal begins, many of the instruments will remain the same. Everyone must play on. Everyone must find a place within a new era.

"He’s been one of the most visible symbols of all the great change that has taken place for our organization," Silverman said of Maddon. "There’s a great foundation of success that we experienced while Joe was our manager, and our next manager gets to build upon that, to continue to improve the culture and the uniqueness of what we have here and take us to even greater heights."

The optimistic words are spoken because there must be faith that the change will produce future reward.

Still, on a day when a comfortable status quo stopped, there are more uncertainties than answers, more unknowns than comfort with an eccentric leader gone.

Maddon and the Rays appeared destined to be joined for many more years, but after creating memories and masterpieces together, each must build again without the other. The heart for both beats on.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.