ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Rays are underdogs again in the AL East, which is just fine with manager Joe Maddon.
The defending division champions open the season Friday night against Baltimore with one of the lowest payrolls in the major leagues, yet believe they’re perfectly capable of competing for a third title in four years.
The favored Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees may have more resources to put a winning product on the field, however the Rays have proven money doesn’t guarantee finishing on top.
The Orioles have expectations too, after showing improvement under manager Buck Showalter over the last two months of the 2010 season.
“Everybody’s speaking of the demise of the Rays. … I kind of dig that,” said Maddon, who embraces the challenge of trying to remain competitive in baseball’s toughest division despite losing Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and six relievers out of the AL’s best bullpen to free agency.
Tampa Bay also traded 2008 AL championship series MVP Matt Garza and traded shortstop Jason Bartlett in cost-cutting moves that management insisted should not be interpreted as a sign the Rays are conceding anything other than they’ve always had to operate differently than the free-spending Red Sox and Yankees.
“I enjoy listening to all that stuff because it really doesn’t matter. We did win two out of the last three years. There’s been an exodus, but there’s also been a nice influx, too,” Maddon said, noting Tampa Bay has bolstered the offense with the additions of veterans Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez and rebuilt the bullpen around offseason acquisitions Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Adam Russell, Cesar Ramos and Juan Cruz.
“We appreciate who we are, where we are in the landscape of this division,” vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman added, “and that we have to get creative and problem-solve in different ways.”
The Orioles have new a new look as well after adding Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Kevin Reynolds and J.J Hardy to the lineup, while bringing in new closer Kevin Gregg and right-handers Justin Duchscherer and Jeremy Accardo to bolster a pitching staff that’ll be led by opening day starter Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Matusz.
“I think we have great young pitching, guys that showed a lot of progress at the end of last year. We’ve got to hope we can continue that growth and that progression,” said Guthrie, 11-14 with a 3.83 ERA in 2010 — Baltimore’s 13th consecutive losing season.
The Orioles, who stumbled to a 2-16 start a year ago after blowing a ninth-inning lead in a 4-3 opening-day loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field, are hoping to build on the success they enjoyed after Showalter replaced Dave Trembley as manager on Aug. 2.
The team won seven of its first eight games under Showalter, and the Orioles’ 34-23 record over the last two months of the season was second-best in the AL behind Minnesota’s 35-22.
Guthrie is excited about being tabbed the opening day starter.
He believes it’s important to try set the tone for the rest of the staff, even though Showalter hasn’t specifically asked him to assume greater leadership as the No. 1 man in the rotation.
“He didn’t ask me to do anything else. This is the third time I’ve done it, so I’m going to try and do the same things I did the other times, which is try to go out there and work hard and prepare for each start … be aggressive with the hitters, and hopefully that will rub off on the others and we will pitch well, the way we did the last two months of the season,” the right-hander said.
The Rays will counter with last season’s AL Cy Young Award runner-up David Price, who will become the 13th pitcher in big league history to make starts on opening day, in an All-Star game and during the postseason by age 25. Atlanta’s Tom Glavine was the last to do it, 20 years ago.
The hard-throwing left-hander is eager to get going again after losing twice in the playoffs to the Texas Rangers. So are the rest of the Rays, who aren’t content to rest on past laurels.
“Our guys are kind of motivated being eliminated in the first round, Maddon said. “When you get knocked out in the first round, that’s a little bit of a punch in the gut. We didn’t like it. Hopefully we’re going to channel that in the right way.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)