DUNEDIN — Preparing for another 162-game grinder in the American League East meat market, the Tampa Bay Rays are eager to prove themselves once again.
Since dropping the word “Devil’’ from their logo in 2008, the Rays have re-branded themselves as annual contenders in a challenging division that includes the Yankees and the Red Sox. Tampa Bay’s 550-423 record during the past six years ranks second in the majors to the Yankees, and the Rays have earned four postseason berths in that span.
“Ever since I’ve played for the Rays, I’ve had the feeling we play in the toughest division in baseball,’’ outfielder Matt Joyce said before Friday’s 6-3 Grapefruit League victory against Toronto. “There are no pushovers, for sure, but we all have fun and we work hard.’’
Catcher Ryan Hanigan, acquired from the Reds in December, knows what a winning clubhouse feels like. Cincinnati made the postseason in three of Hanigan’s final four seasons in the NL, and he already sees similarities between Rays manager Joe Maddon and former Reds skipper Dusty Baker.
“They are both players’ managers,’’ Hanigan said. “They know how to get the most out of their guys and, as players, we know they have our backs. Both guys create a mentality where you want to go out and play for them.’’
Maddon has orchestrated Tampa Bay’s ascension, and he’s forecasting another AL East bloodbath.
“The Yankees lost some guys (Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte), but those acquisitions (Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Masahiro Tanaka) are pretty firm that they made in the offseason.
“When they got Tanaka — and I’m sure he’s as good as advertised — that really made it interesting. Their pitching has gotten thick again, and I think they did a wonderful job of piecing it together.”
When Maddon gazes across the division landscape, he sees obstacles everywhere.
“Boston is coming off a World Series victory, and there’s a lot of gamers on that team,’’ he said. “They’ve got the kind of guys that maybe when you break them down in the sabermetric world, they might come up a little bit short, but what they provide is hard to measure, and it’s great.
“The team that’s really interesting to me is this one,’’ Maddon said, gesturing across the field to Toronto’s dugout. “That’s because nobody is talking about them this year.’’
Last spring, the Blue Jays were considered an emerging division power after adding R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Melky Cabrera in the offseason. But injuries struck hard and Toronto finished in the AL East basement at 74-88.
“Be head’s-up on Toronto,’’ Maddon said, “because nobody is talking about them. I think they probably prefer it that way. And Baltimore made the mad rush to the finish line last year. (The AL East) is what it is every year and I kind of like it .... it brings out the best in all of us.’’
Since 2008, the Rays are the only major-league team to post at least 90 wins five times. Maddon has won two AL Manager of the Year awards in that span, and he and Andrew Friedman reign as baseball’s longest-tenured manager/GM pairing.
“Putting up 90 wins every year isn’t easy, especially in our division,” Joyce said. “It’s a testament to the organization and it’s a great workplace. They consistently put a team out there that has a chance to win 90 games. As a player, that’s about all you can ask for.’’