NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Joe Maddon's Rays play in a division ruled by the bullies of baseball -- the Yankees and Red Sox. So questioning the Rays' manager about the futility of being in the American League East seemed appropriate when he met with the media on Tuesday at Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings.

But rather than offer a commentary about how the Rays can't compete against the two AL East combatants due to different constraints, the question sparked a dialogue in which Maddon expressed his feelings about the Rays' direction in 2008 and beyond.

Maddon noted he wasn't worried about possible free-agent acquisitions or trades the Red Sox and Yankees would make this offseason.

"I'm worried about what we're doing and I'm really focused there," Maddon said. "And if we do the right things, I believe we'll be able to compete with these people over the next couple of years. ... I like what we're doing. I like how we're doing it, and I believe in what we're doing. I can see it getting better."

Maddon stressed a component for the Rays improving is the team's belief system.

"Part of us has to stop talking about lack of experience and just start playing," Maddon said. "We want to start that this year. When the Red Sox beat us or the Yankees beat us or Toronto beats us or whomever, I don't want it to be about a lack of experience. [I want it to be], 'We just got beat tonight.'

"Yes, we're young. And we have lacked some experience. But now we've gained some experience over the past two years. Now is the time to start making this thing work a little bit. So I love the American League East. I wouldn't want to play anywhere else."

The Rays will be different in 2008. Already they've added a shortstop in Jason Bartlett, a closer in Troy Percival, and a middle-of-the-rotation starter in Matt Garza, while losing infielder Brendan Harris and right fielder Delmon Young in the six-player deal with the Twins.

On paper, the Rays are a better team than at any point in the club's history. Questions that still need to be answered include the following: Who will play right field? Will top prospect Evan Longoria start the season at third base? Where will Akinori Iwamura play? Who will fill the final two spots in the starting rotation?

According to Maddon, right field belongs to Rocco Baldelli and Jonny Gomes right now.

"Rocco's [health is] still the issue," Maddon said. "We're not exactly sure what he's going to be able to do yet. And once we're able to answer that question, we'll be able to be more specific, I think."

Maddon added that he has a lot of faith in Gomes, too, but he would like to add a left-handed-hitting right fielder that can be used in a platoon situation at designated hitter, as well.

"Whatever Rocco does kind of defines what we want to do," Maddon said.

Winter Meetings

Maddon continued to spout the company line that a decision is forthcoming on Longoria, but just not yet. Which led to his revealing that Iwamura is definitely headed to second base.

"We're pretty much committed to the fact that Aki's going to go there," Maddon said. "The other side of it is when we believe Evan is going to be ready to do his thing. ... Right now, our conventional wisdom is to put Aki at second base and leave him there, even if we don't feel Evan is ready to start the season [at third]."

If the Rays feel Longoria is not ready, Maddon said they plan to mix and match at third rather than displace Iwamura.

Finally, with the addition of Garza, who joins Scott Kazmir and James Shields in the rotation, just two slots are left to be filled by a group consisting of Andy Sonnanstine, Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell, Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot.

"We are stockpiling the pitchers," Maddon said. "Those guys had some really good competition at the end of last season. I'm talking Jackson, Sonnanstine, Hammel and Howell. Then you've got Talbot and Niemann knocking on the door, and the other fellas coming up from behind. There's a lot of competition for those couple of spots, and that's a good thing, obviously."

The Rays have been pushed around throughout the team's 10-year existence. But in Maddon's eyes, they are clearly ready to start swinging back.