Rays determined to stick with proven formula
Pitching, defense have led to four straight winning seasons
ST. PETERSBURG -- If you're curious about what direction the Rays are going to head in this offseason, just repeat this mantra: More of the same.
And more of the same means pitching and defense.
"I believe that pitching and defense has gotten us to this point, as far as our success," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And that's really allowed us to be consistent and have four consecutive winning seasons."
Maddon is an easy rider -- nothing ever seems to bother him. However, there is one thing that will make his stomach a little queasy.
"It's very uncomfortable to look out on the field and feel like there's not an above-average defender at each position," Maddon said. "I'm telling you, it's so comforting to see [above-average defenders at each position for the Rays], especially when you are nurturing this kind of pitching staff. Our success is really rooted in pitching and defense.
"You look at each spot defensively and we're above average at each spot. Sometimes the same guys who are getting criticized for their offensive contributions are the same guys who are preventing runs on a nightly basis. If I'm a Major League pitcher, I want to turn around and see those boys playing defense. I think that's very comforting."
Rays fielders committed the fewest errors in the Major Leagues with a club-record 73 in 2011, and their fielding percentage of .988 tied the Phillies for tops in the Major Leagues. Only four American League clubs all-time have made fewer errors in a full season. Down the stretch, the Rays committed only seven errors in the final 22 games and just 21 in the final 58 (opponents committed 46 over that same 58-game period). Further proof of the team's defensive excellence is illustrated by the fact that since June 21, 2010, they have made just 110 errors in 255 games, which is the fewest in the Major Leagues and 36 fewer than any other AL club.
Combine their stellar defense with the fact that Rays pitching held opponents to a .234 batting average -- the best in a full season by an AL club since 1972 -- and an AL-low 614 runs, and you start to get the idea of why the Rays are married to their formula for success.
"To walk away from that formula at this point would not be wise," Maddon said.
In an ideal world, the Rays would bring in a thumper to hit in the middle of the lineup this offseason to give Evan Longoria some protection in the order.
"People have focused a lot on our offensive shortcomings," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "And we're an above-average offensive team. Would we have liked to have been better? Of course."
However, there are constraints when it comes to bringing in that offensive force.
"I would love to maintain the caliber of defense that we have and add offense," Friedman said. "Often times that's very difficult to accomplish. But that is the goal.
"If you add offense, more than likely you're detracting from the defense. So we're not going to do things where it's a net neutral move, or even to where we take a step back. All of that is going to factor in. Because optically, we could go out and get someone who people say is going to hit 30 home runs and feel like we're going to be a better team. But you won't necessarily be a better team if you give back on defense."
Maddon added: "If we find the right guy, that would be great. As we fill in the blanks in the future, we have to maintain that level. Because every night you look out on that field, you see all the above-average guys who really get into their defense and care about their defense. It's outstanding."
If the Rays did identify a player who could fit in offensively and defensively, many would assume that trading some of Tampa Bay's healthy reservoir of starting pitching would be the way to acquire such an addition. But listening to Friedman, one quickly gets the idea that that scenario is remote. The fact that the Rays are seven or eight starting pitchers deep doesn't necessarily make them feel compelled to deal from the group.
"You look at teams around the league, and teams that broke camp thinking they had an ample amount of starting pitching depth," Friedman said. "And that got exposed. That's something we can't have happen."
So looking ahead to the Hot Stove part of the season, think about the Rays as a modified game of rock, paper, scissors. In the Rays' world, leather trumps lumber every time.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.