PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays entered the full-squad portion of Spring Training with exceedingly high hopes and the means to turn those hopes into reality.
The full-squad work at Charlotte Sports Park on Thursday was ushered in by manager Joe Maddon's annual Spring Training oration to his club. Almost all managers, Maddon says, are trying to make the same points in these speeches. The difference is in how effectively the manager presents those points. This is one of the many times when having Maddon as manager can work out well.
The Rays are happily operating this spring under one of Maddon's motivational mantras. This one is "Leaders eat last." In the team context, this could refer to the banquet the Rays can hold after they have won the final game of the 2014 World Series.
Maddon saved this aspect for the last topic in his 14-minute address to his team on Thursday. "I thought it was appropriate to talk about 'eating last' last," Maddon said.
Solid concept. The key phrase is from a book about team-building that third baseman Evan Longoria found compelling reading. So he was already on board with Maddon and the concept.
"The goal is to eat last," Longoria said. "By that he means to play the last game of the year and win it. He always has the same goals; he just has a different way of putting it."
Maddon's message to his players stresses three fundamental points. The Rays must be the team that grinds out consistent effort and performance over the long season. On the other hand, they should also have a good time playing the game. And while the hard work and the fun are going on simultaneously, they will be treated like men, like adults, like someone who has earned the right to exercise responsibility.
"I think it's a pretty generic message that I think every group wants to get out there," Maddon said. "I think it's the way you deliver it that may set you apart.
"One thing I want the players to know, especially the new guys is: 'You know what is right. You know what is wrong. You don't need me to tell you what is right and what is wrong.' For me to lord it over you that particular moment, I don't see any point in that whatsoever, if you're an accountable professional.
"That's why I don't sit there and read off this laundry list of things that they can or cannot do. I really want to emphasize that, and then we talk about the overall concept regarding the kind of freedom that we like to give the players here. We do trust them. I think if you do that, you're going to get greater respect and discipline in return. You've got to say that."
"An open environment" of this sort, Maddon firmly believes, will allow his club to get the absolute individual best out of each player.
"That to me is the most important thing to get out there," the manager said.
Over 14 minutes of content, this doesn't have to be the Gettysburg Address in terms of seriousness for every second. At the 10-minute mark of Maddon's speech to his players, three coaches, on cue, fell down, pretending to faint.
"It was right on cue," Maddon said. "It was right when I was saying: 'This is stuff that the coaches have heard over and over and over again.' They fainted at that point. "
Can Tampa Bay take this approach and wind up at baseball's summit? It is a significant distance from here -- the last third of February -- to the end of October. But the Rays have already been the little franchise that could for some time.
Four times in the last six seasons, Tampa Bay has qualified for the postseason. Twice the Rays have won the mighty American League East. Once, they won the AL pennant and advanced to the World Series.
This season, the Rays have chosen to spend what for them is a magnificent sum on player salaries. There had been early indications that they might slice their 2013 player payroll, which was at $62 million. Instead, they raised the payroll to about $80 million, a team record. Tampa Bay solidified its infield by bringing back first baseman James Loney for three years at $21 million. The club brought in a proven closer in Grant Balfour for $12 million over two years.
And most crucial of all, for their 2014 chances, the Rays signed ace David Price to a one-year deal for $14 million. Now, they should be better than they were in 2013, in part simply by being healthier in the rotation. And this season, they will have Wil Myers' productive bat in the lineup from the start.
Tampa Bay usually has considerable roster churn from year to year due to economic issues. That won't be the case this year, either.
So will the Rays actually eat last? We can't be absolutely certain, but it is safe to say that, at a minimum, they should be one of the teams eating latest.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.