With a little love and a lot of baseball in the air on Valentine's Day at Charlotte Sports Park, the Tampa Bay Rays kicked off Spring Training 2014 through an opening day press conference by manager Joe Maddon on February 14 in Port Charlotte, Florida.
The team traditionally begins spring training in such a manner and this year's festivities did not disappoint, as Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman fielded questions from the gathered press for thirty minutes.
The two-time Manager of the Year displayed trademark frankness in expressing delight that the majority of his playoff team from 2013 is returning this season. Maddon optimistically stated, "The continuity of bringing back the same guys back is big. Coming into camp with a set situation makes my job a lot easier. There will be competition in certain spots. But this is a deep, well-balanced group."
The Rays won 92 games a year ago, triumphing over the Cleveland Indians in the American League Wild-Card Game, before falling to the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox in the next round of the playoffs.
Opening the checkbook to retain critical components from that squad, such as 2012 Cy Young Award winner David Price, left fielder David DeJesus, and first baseman James Loney, the team additionally added a few new pieces in the offseason, including reliever Grant Balfour, who Maddon described as his closer on Friday, "We already talked about Balfour being the closer, which I normally don't do. I used the "C" word. He is that."
In total, Tampa Bay enters the 2014 campaign with a payroll that could surprisingly reach $80 million, which reflects the confidence by ownership in the club's potential to win a championship. Friedman echoed this sentiment, saying, "We overextended ourselves financially a little and it's a bit uncomfortable, but we don't do it flippantly. Our focus is on the talent with an expectation to win."
The 37-year-old executive is rightfully credited for much of the Rays' lengthy run of success, which included a trip to the 2008 World Series and four post-season appearances in the past six seasons. Repeatedly emphasizing the balanced nature of the club throughout the press conference, Friedman seemingly again constructed a squad characterized by a deep roster, strong pitching, and versatile position players.
With many of Tampa Bay's hurlers already in camp, and a handful of hitters seen swinging in the batting cages, pitchers and catchers officially report on Saturday. The first formal workout of spring training will occur a day later and the full squad is scheduled to arrive in Port Charlotte by February 19.
The Rays begin the exhibition season on February 28 with a 1:05 p.m. game against the Sarasota-based Baltimore Orioles at Charlotte Sports Park. The 7,000-seat facility will host 14 spring training games, highlighted by a contest against the New York Yankees on March 5, a pair of dates with the rival Red Sox, and night games with the Minnesota Twins on March 20 and Orioles on March 26.
The state-of-the-art location, just 90 minutes south of the team's regular season home in St. Petersburg, has welcomed the successful franchise every spring since 2009. Entering his ninth season guiding Tampa Bay, the veteran skipper conceded there was "something nostalgic" about spring training in Florida.
He even demonstrated his fondness for life at the facility by showing off his new RV at the conclusion of Friday's press conference. Impressing on-lookers with the spacious comfort of the 40-foot motorized home, which includes three beds, a kitchen, and a man-cave with four televisions, Maddon plans to live in the RV during spring training.
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