Joe Maddon realizes that it's the time of the offseason to look ahead instead of back. The opening of spring training is just two months away, and the Rays manager knows he has a lot to look forward to with a talented young team that has been to the postseason in three of the last four seasons.
However, Maddon can't help but think back to the wild final night of the 2011 regular season, when his team capped a most improbable couple of comebacks to win the American League wild card. Of course, no one will let him forget about that unforgettable moment when the Rays rallied from 7-0 down in the eighth inning to beat the Yankees 8-7 in 12 innings and clinch the wild card on Evan Longoria's home run, just moments after the Red Sox blew a lead to the Orioles in the bottom of the ninth inning to complete their collapse. The Rays made up nine games on the Red Sox in September, the largest final-month comeback in major-league history.
"Honestly, I get that," Maddon said when asked if he has been able to digest the late-season events of 2011. "I've done some gigs out west and even back east since the end of the season. While you're actually participating in that moment, you don't get it. You don't feel it. You're just playing. And then since then you get a chance to talk to everybody, almost everybody to a person that wants to talk about it talks about the best hour in the history of Major League Baseball, at least within their lifetime. That causes you to reflect and pause and say, 'Wow, that was that powerful.' You knew it when it was all said and done, but to really visit with people that were caught up in the moment, that's really fascinating.
"And then furthermore, to know that you're a part of it somehow is kind of neat, because again, as a kid growing up you watched Bobby Thomson's home run, I don't know how many times, in black and white going over the wall of left field. And more recently, I don't know how many times, you've seen Joe Carter jumping up, going around first base, all those dramatic, historical moments in baseball, if you are a baseball historian, stick with you. But then to actually be in the dugout to witness one of those actual moments is cool."
Even losing to the Rangers in four games in the American League Division Series did not take away from what the Rays accomplished. Maddon thinks they can be even better in 2012, because their roster does not need a major reconstruction like it did last winter, when the Rays had to replace first baseman Carlos Pena, left fielder Carl Crawford, starting pitcher Matt Garza, and their entire bullpen except for long reliever Andy Sonnanstine.
The best part is that Maddon figures to have a very nice problem when the Rays get to Port Charlotte for spring training. The forward-thinking manager will try to find a way to get eight to fit into five. The Rays have eight pitchers ready to start in the major leagues but only five rotation spots, though Maddon won't completely rule out going with a six-man rotation to keep his starters fresh and hold down some of the younger starters' innings counts.
The Rays' season-opening rotation will likely include left-handers David Price and Matt Moore and right-handers James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, and Wade Davis. However, they also have right-hander Jeff Niemann and two other highly regarded prospects besides Moore in left-hander Alex Torres and right-hander Alex Cobb.
The pitching surplus seemingly should enable the Rays to make a trade to shore up an offense that has holes at first base, shortstop, and right field. At the moment, Russ Canzler, Sean Rodriguez, and Brandon Guyer would be the probable starters at those positions. However, the Rays also realize how important young and reasonably priced starting pitching has been to their becoming a consistent contender with an almost embarrassingly low payroll, so they won't give arms away.
"We're like everybody else," Maddon said. "We want to do something that's going to help. At the end of the day, if it's not, then you keep these guys, and that's not a bad thing, either. We just have to pick these other couple spots up that we need to fill out the group, fill out the batting order again while we're maintaining our defense, and having those arms, every night when you walk out to the dugout and you look at your guy on the mound versus their guy on the mound, if you feel good about that, that's a pretty good feeling. Every night you walk out as the Rays' manager and you walk out on the mound you feel pretty good about the potential results that night. Not everybody can say that."
While the Rays do have some spots to fill, the voids are not nearly as massive as last winter’s, and Maddon's letter to Santa Claus this December is a lot shorter than it was in 2010.
"It's incredible the amount of tightness on the wish list right now," Maddon said. "I'm a lot more comfortable with the team coming back because we've got a lot of young guys with experience based on last year at the same time. We believe we have a pretty good chance of repeating and going back to the playoffs next year, and with that, if we make the right choices in this offseason, and I have a lot of faith in our guys (in the front office) that we will, then we have a pretty good chance of going back to the playoffs again."
Even if it would be hard to imagine the Rays having a more interesting journey to get to the postseason than they did this year.