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Posted: Wednesday March 10, 2010 1:29PM; Updated: Wednesday March 10, 2010 2:06PM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>INSIDE BASEBALL

Spring Postcard: Tampa Bay Rays look to regain edge in 2010

Story Highlights

Manager Joe Maddon is aware the Rays won't sneak up on anyone again

The Rays' young starting rotation has set a goal of 200 innings per man

The versatile Sean Rodriguez is making a case for significant playing time

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Postcards From Camp
 
Location: Port Charlotte, Fla.
 

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Get to know me: Sean Rodriguez, acquired in the Scott Kazmir trade, belted homers in each of the Rays' first three exhibition games.
AP
MLB Team Page

This spring, SI.com's baseball writers will be filing postcards from all 30 camps. To read all the postcards, click here.

Three observations

1. The Rays admit it: They lost their edge

Left fielder Carl Crawford calls it the "World Series hangover." Starter Matt Garza admits the Rays "took [our success] for granted." Shortstop Jason Bartlett chimes in, "As bad as it is to say, we probably tried to live off '08 in '09."

After winning the franchise's first American League pennant in 2008, Tampa Bay started last season 8-14, falling six-and-a-half games back on April 29, never fully recovering despite a summer surge, and finishing with just 84 wins.

But the Rays had remarkably little offseason turnover because, in the front office's estimation, their talent level was "better than an 84-win team last year," says executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman. "That does nothing for us in 2009, but it does a lot for our decision-making process."

In other words, the Rays are trusting talents like B.J. Upton, Pat Burrell and Dioner Navarro to bounce back from admittedly down seasons.

In order to regain their edge, manager Joe Maddon has emphasized that the Rays won't sneak up on anyone again, and that they need to "dominate games late," particularly after going just 20-25 in one-run games last season. Admittedly, a lot of that depends on an improved bullpen -- for which the trade to obtain closer Rafael Soriano will help -- but also on the offense to have better end-of-game production. As third baseman Evan Longoria notes, that means having better situational at-bats and doing more homework to prepare for the opposing relievers most likely to be called upon in late-inning matchup situations.

2. The starters have set a goal of 1,000 innings.

That's the noble benchmark for a durable, bullpen-saving starting rotation, at an average of 200 innings per man. It's something the Rays have never done and no AL team accomplished in 2009, though the Rays and White Sox were close, tying for the AL lead with 970.

It's a stretch because all five members of Tampa Bay's rotation are between the ages of 24 and 28, thus relatively youthful, with only Garza and James Shields having more than one full season of major league experience. Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis -- two former first-round picks and a third -- are the other starters. Niemann threw 180 2/3 innings last year; Price threw 172 2/3 combined major- and minor-league innings; and Davis threw 195 combined innings which, incidentally, makes him a Verducci Effect candidate. Even with formidable rotations in Boston and New York, Maddon is confident in his group. "I like ours as good as anybody's," he says, even "in spite of our youth and inexperience."

3. The mental muscle is not overlooked.

One key contributor to the team's success who's not on the organizational masthead is sports psychologist Ken Ravizza. A faculty member at Cal State Fullerton, Ravizza met Maddon when the latter was coaching in the Angels organization and, coincidentally, met Longoria when he played at Long Beach State. Ravizza visits the Rays a couple of times each year during spring training and then again every couple of weeks when the team is on the road (where there are fewer distractions and no "honey do list," says Ravizza) to coach the players through the mental grind of the sport. "He's a very important, often overlooked aspect of our putting players in the best position to have success," Friedman says. "We talk about the physical side a lot, and it's intuitive to us to focus just as much on the mental side as well."

Among his more devoted followers and adapters of his practices are Garza, Longoria and Niemann. "He's a good outlet for us, to pick that brain a little," Garza says. "We do a lot of physical training, but few times do we get to work our mental muscle."

For the pitchers, Ravizza devises breathing exercises that help the hurlers remember his three steps to pitching success: selection, location, commitment. "You can have an 85 mile-per-hour fastball, with commitment or without it, and those are two different pitches," Ravizza says. "When they've got their 'A'-game, they can just pitch. But if you want to be consistent over the duration, you have to have a good crappy day."

Prospect creating a buzz

Sean Rodriguez.

With apologies to outfielder Desmond Jennings, Baseball America's No. 6 prospect and the heir apparent if (when?) Crawford leaves in free agency, and to pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, BA's No. 18 prospect, no one can top what Rodriguez has done in camp thus far. Rodriguez, 24, a third-round pick of the Angels in 2003, arrived in Tampa Bay via the Scott Kazmir trade. Capable of playing second base, shortstop, third base and all three outfield positions, Rodriguez has gone 7-for-14 so far this spring, with five of those hits going for extra bases (a double, a triple and three home runs). He leads all AL players this spring with 19 total bases. Spending most of last year at Triple-A, he hit 30 home runs and slugged an impressive .608.

Position Battle

Second base/right field.

Breakout star Ben Zobrist will be playing one of those two positions, but the competition remains for the other spot. Zobrist's versatility makes for an unusual position battle between guys who play different positions. Among the leading contenders are infielders Rodriguez and Reid Brignac and right fielder Matt Joyce. There is also a chance that Zobrist will continue to toggle between the positions, meaning there could be no clear-cut winner.

Honorable mention goes to the catcher battle between Navarro and newly-acquired Kelly Shoppach. Both had disappointing seasons in 2009 and are looking to win the primary catching job this spring.

Parting Shots

Bartlett and his wife bought a new home in Lodi, Calif., and he installed his own gym into his garage, allowing him the freedom to work out when he wanted to (though usually planned around his one-year-old son's sleeping schedule) and blast his own music. ... Price says the biggest difference for him between 2008 and '09 was that, suddenly, "Everybody expected me to do great things." Among his workout partners in Nashville were Russell Branyan and Dan Uggla. ... The Rays' rapid rise in '08 from worst to first has been well documented and properly attributed to their improvement in the new baseball buzzphrase, "run prevention." Now that the secret's out, Friedman is off looking for the next big thing: "We have to find it. And if we do, I promise you we're not going to talk about it."

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