Rays open camp with high expectations

AP Sports Writer

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Rays are back on the job, eager to make amends for a disappointing season.

Manager Joe Maddon welcomed pitchers and catchers to spring training Friday and is confident the club has what it takes to compete for a playoff berth after finishing third in the AL East in 2009.

Sixteen months removed from the franchise’s first World Series appearance, the budget-conscious Rays again find themselves chasing the big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in baseball’s toughest division.

Maddon envisions a lineup led by five All-Stars and a young, talented pitching rotation closing the gap sooner rather than later by doing the “little things” that make the difference between winning and losing.

“We won 84 games last year. We won 97 the year before that. If you look at a lot of the games we lost, there easily are 10 games we could have won,” the manager said, citing situational hitting woes and an inability to hold leads late in games in 2009.

“My expectations are that we’re going to play a better, more fundamental game of baseball. … For us to get back where we have been, which I expect we will, we have to do better at the little things.”

The Rays were stretched thin financially last season by a $63 million payroll that will exceed $70 million in 2010, partly because they addressed the need for a closer by trading for Rafael Soriano and giving him a $7.25 million, one-year contract.

Owner Stuart Sternberg reiterated Friday that the team is living above its means and a payroll reduction is inevitable.

“The flip side to everything is that when you have the kind of quality players we have here is over time they tend to cost more money than guys who aren’t very good,” Sternberg said during the team’s first official workout.

“I would have said to you absolutely, as recently as two years ago, there’s no way this team can run a 70-plus million dollar payroll, let alone a $60 million payroll, at any point. But we did some things right, and I felt it was best to try and continue the success. Now I think we’ve definitely overstepped our comfort zone.”

If the Rays play up to their potential, there may not be significant cuts until next season. If they don’t, Carl Crawford ($10 million), Carlos Pena ($10.125 million) and Pat Burrell ($9 million) could be among the players the club tries to unload before 2011.

Maddon doesn’t expect the contract status of the team’s highest-paid players to become a distraction.

“If we’re playing well and are in a good position, I think all this stuff eventually is going to take care of itself,” he said.

Nor is Maddon concerned about what the Yankees and Red Sox have done to improve themselves after finishing 19 and 11 games ahead of the Rays, respectively, on the way to earning playoff berths.

Coming off winning the World Series, the Yankees added Curtis Granderson, Javier Vazquez and Nick Johnson. John Lackey, Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro have joined the Red Sox.

In addition to acquiring Soriano, the Rays improved their depth at catcher by bringing in Kelly Shoppach to share playing time with Dioner Navarro.

“Our division is always going to be in a constant state of getting better. There’s nothing we can do about that. … I’m always more concerned about what we’re doing and how we’re getting better as opposed to these other teams,” Maddon said.

“I think as we get back to consistently playing the game fundamentally better, it really does not matter who’s playing for these other teams.”

Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay’s executive vice president of baseball operations, feels good about what the club did in the offseason, too, calling the roster the most talented in franchise history.

At the same time, he rejects the notion that there’s a sense of urgency to win before financial considerations force changes.

“There’s no team … that can sit here today and say they expect to win the American League East. But we feel like with the talent we have on hand, we’ll be in a position to be playing meaningful games in September,” Friedman said.

“I definitely don’t think there’s an urgency as much as we have a very talented team. I don’t think there needs to be any added pressure because if guys go out and do what they’re capable of, we don’t have to exceed that to be in that position.”