A CL interview with Joe Maddon on the Rays' chances, Manny & Johnny, "defensive-ectomy," the bullpen and skinny jeans

I want to say ‘win the World Series’ too; I mean, everybody talks about that and that’s really hard to do. You look at last season where we had a nice year, we had a really good year and we get to that point where we run into a hot pitcher in a five-game series and that’s kind of hard to beat sometimes. Our goal in a championship season, 162 games, I think it’s more realistic to talk about winning your division first and then, after that, going after the World Series.


KT: How satisfied are you with the team’s performance against divisional foes this spring?


JM: Actually really good. We’ve played well against divisional foes in the spring. That’s the one thing that you always have to guard against is that you kind of get up and play better or harder versus the perceived better teams or the teams in your division — which I love that we do — but you also have to carry that over against other team as well.


KT: What does the spring performance mean to you?


JM: If you look at it more closely, we started out I think 1-6 or 1-7, which meant we were playing poorly. There’s no big secret to when your record’s bad, whether it’s here or in the regular season, it really just comes down to how well you are playing and the mistakes that you’re making or not making. I just think we’ve been playing a very good brand of baseball; since being 1-7 we’re now 14-12, so that looks pretty good. That’s 13-5, so we’ve been playing pretty good for a while. And even in those five losses, there’s been some really close games late that we’ve lost. So what it means is that we’re playing well; we’re getting our concepts. The stuff that we’re working on, the guys are really buying into and it’s really been kind of fun to watch. Again, even in the short amount of time you go from not doing well to doing well… you can just see guys are making fewer mistakes and their focus has gotten better.


KT: Which team poses the greatest threat to the Rays’ divisional hopes?


JM: You have to lean toward Boston first, probably, and then us and the Yankees, although, I’m telling you, Toronto’s a lot better, Baltimore’s a lot better; this division has really gotten exponentially more difficult this year. I’ve had this conversation with people: it’s going to be really tough to go .500-plus in this division. We play each other 70-some times; it’s going to be really competitive. We played the Yankees and the Red Sox in back-to-back nights; you would not even think they were spring training games. You talk about the intensity, it was awesome to see our guys and their guys feel that same way.


KT: Describe your managerial style in 20 words or less.


JM: (clears throat) First of all, I hate self-definition. Second of all, I’d like to believe it’s communicative. I’d like to believe it’s creative. Upbeat and energetic; maybe that’s redundant, I don’t know. If I could be considered in those words I’d be very pleased.


KT: What do you look for from Jeremy Hellickson in his first major league season?


JM: A lot of what you saw when he pitched last year. I’m not guaranteeing you 3-0… I’m talking about the composure, the good stuff. I’d also look for him to learn, I also look for him to get his ears pinned back a couple times and see how he does after that; all the little growth moments that are going to occur. I do believe he’s going to be very successful because of the combination of very good stuff and a very slow heartbeat.


KT: Give me a quick rundown of the rest of the starting rotation and what you expect from them.


JM: You can talk about the whole rotation and what I do believe you can see is every guy, again, we talked about it last year, being at 200-plus innings out of the whole group. Jeremy would be the last, only based on what we would perceive to be whether he’s had too much work or not. But the other four are definitely at the point where they can do that comfortably, so that’s what I’d like to see out of them. Among them, they’re all capable of being double-digits in wins. Some of them are capable of 15-plus, that would be with some breaks and some good offensive support etc. The one thing I’d like to get out of all of them would be the 200-plus innings, and if they’re doing that that means they’re having pretty good seasons and also it means that they’re putting less strain on the bullpen and that gives the bullpen a better chance of being successful.


KT: A lot of people think the bullpen is a question mark, with all the off-season departures. How much confidence do you have in those guys?


JM: I totally understand why people would feel that way and I felt the same way. But, now that I’ve had a chance to see the candidates that I’d not seen pitch before, I’m kind of optimistic about it. I think we’ve been able to piece together a complementary group of guys out there; guys with good stuff, both right and left-handed. A lot of durable guys. Guys who can make consistent appearances. So I kind of like what the bullpen’s going to look like right now. I believe it can be very good.


KT: Do you have a closer in mind?


JM: Not right now. I really believe that you don’t do that unless you’re absolutely sure because you’re setting somebody up to fail if you’re not certain. I’d rather just, for right now, dole it out appropriately. I really do believe this: there’s a whole bunch of guys that can get the last out of the game. We just have to figure out on a nightly basis who that guy is going to be.



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KT: Talk to me about the arrival of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon. What effect do they have in the clubhouse and on the field?


JM: In the clubhouse, their effect has been welcomed. A combination of demonstration of great work ethic and the ability to relax and have fun a bit. Not that we were uptight, but when you get some veterans like that, that have won, that have great spirits about them, they’re infectious in a positive way. They really have demonstrated that already in the clubhouse and on the field. The way that Johnny Damon has already made an impact; there are two ways so far: the way he’s backed up third base on balls hit into the outfield and accepting four walks [against the Houston Astros] and not expanding the strike zone. If I’m a kid watching that… his goal is to not make an out more than it is to get a hit. That’s tremendous. With Manny, anybody on here that likes to drive in a run or wants to drive in a run, just watch him and how he approaches his at-bats with runners in scoring position; rarely chases pitches outside of the zone. Rarely. He might get to two strikes but that third strike is going to be difficult for the pitcher because he’s so well-thought-out and so well-planned and I hope our guys are seeing the same thing.


KT: He’s has spent some time in left field this spring. How often do you anticipate putting him there during the regular season?


JM: I’m not sure yet but I think it’s going to be important to get him out there every once in a while. Say you want to keep both him and Johnny in tomorrow’s game but Johnny’s been playing a lot in left field and you just think that he needs a day off of his feet, have him DH and just put Manny in [left]. That’s an example. That’s how we may do it. There might just be the day when injuries catch up to you somehow… and it might be better to put him out there and let someone else DH. There’s different ways. I don’t know that he’s ready for just a total break — would that be an outfield-ectomy of some kind? — where he’s just not going to play there anymore. Maybe ‘defensive-ectomy’; something along those lines. I think just by sending him out there once in a while, it would help his mind in regards to being a good offensive player.


KT: What do you look for from Evan Longoria in 2011?


JM: A lot of what you’ve seen in the past. I already see him maturing a bit. I really believe him sitting between Johnny and Manny can have a tremendous impact on his pitch selection and driving in runners with less than two outs. I think you’re going to see an increase in his RBIs just based on the influence of those two guys.


KT: Briefly talk to me about the farm system and its readiness for call-ups?


JM: We’re going to be pretty thick, actually. I think we have a nice mix of both pitchers and position players that can help us coming up if that’s necessary. Some of them will be more veteran-ready; some of them will be more youthful. But I think we have both. We may have some babies ready; we’re going to have some guys that have been around the block a bit ready too. That’s nice to have. Not everybody has that. Not everybody has a youthful core like we do and just this great backup plan in place. So I think we’re pretty much prepared at this point if something were to go wrong.


KT: What road-trip themes do you have in mind for this year?


JM: You know what? I’m really trying to float the idea of the skinny jeans; I’m really meeting a lot of resistance with that right now, mostly from the heavy guys. I’d really like to go ‘skinny jeans, shirt tucked.’ That would really make quite an impression and an impact, I think. Somebody brought up yesterday cutoff jeans, which would really be totally outside the box and maybe a little bit too difficult to pull off… Like I explained to someone yesterday, dress does not matter to me. If someone says, ‘Is that inappropriate?’; of course there is inappropriate like in everything in the world. When it comes down to dress, you’ve got to be very offensive; a t-shirt with a bad slogan, I would stay away from that. Almost anything’s wide open. I’ve talked to RV [vice president of communications Rick Vaughn] about tweeting out there, have the fans come up with some ideas and see if we can have some kind of a contest at some point that the fan would come up with an idea. Also, I thought of this yesterday, having letterman’s sweaters. Not jackets but the old button-down sweaters with a big ‘R’ on it somewhere. That’s something you could give to your wife or your girlfriend when you’re done; that’d be kind of cool.


KT: That’s a good transition to my next question; you’re on Twitter on almost a daily basis. What purpose does social networking serve for you? Is that something for you or for the fans?


JM: That’s definitely for the fans. I’m really not a narcissistic person. I really find a lot of that, social media-wise, you have to have some of that within your personality, I think, to really feel as though somebody wants to read my deepest, darkest thoughts all day long. I feel like I’m tweeting all day long just by talking to you and the media. I tweet just as much as anybody in a more conventional means. The actual purpose of it, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it, although when texting came on board I didn’t get that as much. I understood email from the beginning because I was emailing way back in the early ’90s. Texting I didn’t get but tweeting I certainly don’t get yet… maybe it’s just me, though, because I have this ability to get my thoughts out to writers or different media outlets. So I think maybe for those that don’t have the same kind of abilities or options, maybe tweeting is a more appealing method of getting your thoughts out to the masses a little bit more often. That’s the only way I consider it. Otherwise, I do it for the fans’ purposes; it’s definitely not to try to empty my brain out to anybody else.


KT: Give me a quick fastball about the ‘no haircuts’ thing.


JM: A couple of things happened. In this past offseason I ran into a bunch of old slides, from 1978, of me when I was playing for the Salinas Angels and my hair was very long. I had a mustache, not that I like the mustache at all. But I just thought, ‘You know what? It might be time.’ I’ve been doing the crewcuts for such a long time now; it might be time to bring back the long hair. And then we signed Manny. And then I show up and [bench coach] Davey Martinez has got the Grizzly Adams thing going on. And I’m looking at society in general; I think it might be time for long hair to come back. So for all those different reasons, and just to do something different, which I really enjoy doing just to do it.

The ever-amiable manager of the Tampa Bay Rays sat down with Creative Loafing’s Kevin Tall to talk about the season ahead, team chemistry and the latest in men’s fashion crimes.

Kevin Tall: Good morning, skip.

Joe Maddon: How are you doing, man? Good to see you.

KT: Good. Let’s dive right in. What are your expectations for this season?

Joe Maddon: To repeat as A.L. East champs. That’s my expectation, and then take it from there.

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