Joe Maddon confident heading into spring

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays’ brain trust sat side by side under a clear sky, a frenetic offseason behind them, this day of fresh starts a reminder of the expectations to come. The phrase is worn but appropriate for the men steering one of the American League East’s most efficient franchises: The more things change, the more they stay the same for manager Joe Maddon and executive vice president Andrew Friedman, even if a winter makeover on the mound has produced questions about how the Rays intend to prolong their consistency.

Gone is right-hander James Shields, sent to the Kansas City Royals in a December deal after he pitched no fewer than 215 innings in five of the past six years. Gone is right-hander Wade Davis, also sent to the Midwest in the six-player blockbuster trade after four productive seasons as a starter and a reliever.

Enter new faces, a mix Maddon calls “versatile” and “interesting,” players such as shortstop Yunel Escobar and infielder/outfielder Kelly Johnson, first baseman James Loney and right-hander Roberto Hernandez, as well as promising talents from Kansas City’s system in outfielder Wil Myers and right-hander Jake Odorizzi. Enter new chemistry — with reason to believe the same standard of success can be met.    

“We did lose some really important people,” Maddon said Tuesday at Charlotte Sports Park during his annual pre-spring training news conference with Friedman. “These guys are great, and I’m sure they’re going to continue to be successful when they’ve ended up. But moving forward, what we’ve done is the group … that we’ve brought in is a very versatile group, whether it’s pitchers that can do a variety of different things as well as position players that can do the same thing.”

It’s a nod to Tampa Bay’s approach over the past five seasons — a process that has produced one AL pennant and three playoff berths — that those optimistic words spoken on the eve of the first workout for pitchers and catchers can be accepted with belief. After all, this is a franchise that has earned no fewer than 90 victories in each of the past three seasons and in four of the past five; its .565 winning percentage since 2008 is second among all AL teams and third in the major leagues.

This is a watermark of the Rays’ creation, of course, and it’s a scenario Friedman and Maddon had in mind when they began stripping a losing culture together in 2006. Questions that accompany this season will be, in many ways, a worthy test of the pair’s vision, one that has proven among the major league’s savviest despite competing within the sport’s most feared division:

*How will the rotation fill innings left by Shields’ absence? (He threw a team-high 227.2 last year.)

*How will the bullpen evolve without Davis? (He had a career-low 2.43 ERA in 70.1 innings last year.)

*How will veterans Loney and Johnson, Escobar and Hernandez fit?

*What impacts will Myers and Odorizzi have, and will they be worth what was lost to gain them?

“We’re excited by where we ended up in terms of our infield defense, what it’s capable of and how much that can contribute to helping replace the innings that James Shields provided,” Friedman said. “When you’re making outs more efficiently, it helps you eat more innings, which in turn helps keep your bullpen rested. … The way it unfolded, with adding a James Loney, with adding a Yunel Escobar, we feel very, very good about where we ended up — both in terms of what they’re capable of defensively and offensively as well.”

That statement reflects a theme of Friedman and Maddon’s message Tuesday. It went something like this: We’re thankful for what Shields and Davis accomplished for us, but we have faith in the talent at our disposal; this journey is about pieces that make a greater whole, about continuing an attitude of winning by valuing the method over any single part.

That’s not hubris, it’s reality. It’s the right way to approach this season, despite uncertainty post-Shields and Davis. It’s what proven, long-term winners do. It’s how the good become great.  

It’s an outlook learned, yes, but also earned. The Rays’ growth under Friedman and Maddon has led to this point: Faith that they can contend for their second AL East title despite not knowing in February how all the pieces, on the mound and elsewhere, will join to make it so.

  
Of course, work will be required. Defending AL Cy Young Award winner David Price, a left-hander, threw 211 innings last year and likely must toss more. Left-hander Matt Moore had 177.1 innings, right-hander Jeremy Hellickson 177 and right-hander Alex Cobb 136.1. Each must lift a greater load.

“It’s never easy to replace James Shields,” Maddon said. “My original thought was that the other guys — I don’t like to use the phrase, ‘Pick up their game’ or whatever — I just want them to continue to develop. There are certain guys like Helli (Hellickson) who can pitch more innings. Moore can pitch more innings. The guys we already have are capable of getting deeper and farther into the game and pitch more innings for the entire season just based on experience. … Of course, the last pitcher within the group, whoever that guy may be, is also going to be capable of pitching a lot of innings. So we’re going to pick those innings up somewhere.”

“Somewhere” is a fitting word to frame the Rays’ situation. Somewhere, they’re confident they’ll find an answer for life post-Shields and Davis. Somewhere, they’re confident they’ll discover how to compensate for two valued arms. Somewhere, they’re confident they’ll develop a new identity on the mound and be as effective as before.

For them, fresh starts include familiar expectations. The more things change, the less they actually do.

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