Rays will be last team standing in '14

"I don't want to be just another guy," he says. "I think everybody plays this game to be the best they can, and that's what I want to do. And hopefully, whatever that is, it'll be one of the best players in the game."

The lineup

Now this is no offensive powerhouse. The Rays scored 153 fewer runs than the Red Sox last season. And it's always fashionable to worry if they'll score enough.

But this is still a lineup that Maddon fits together "like a Svengali" every night, says one scout. And because those pieces always seem to fit, it's so much more than the sum of its parts that only three teams in baseball (Red Sox, Tigers, Angels) wound up generating more baserunners last season than the Rays.

There's something more significant to remember, though. This team "doesn't have to score five runs a game to win," says one scout, "because they pitch it and catch it so well. They don't give you extra outs or extra runs. So they don't have to outslug everybody the way a lot of teams do."

The culture

Is building a winner a science? Or is it an art? If the answer is, "both," what team has both ends covered better than the Rays?

Upstairs, Andrew Friedman and a front office full of outside-the-box thinkers construct a roster with a whole different mindset than the Yankees or Dodgers. The Rays may not be buying the best, but they're thinking the best.

"It's fun watching Andrew put a team together every year," says Cobb. "It really is. I love it."

It's a roster built around flexibility, versatility and bang for the buck. So the Rays trade for Logan Forsythe and give him a tour of five positions this spring. Sean Rodriguez finds his way to five different positions. Ben Zobrist has played 68 games at short, 183 at second and 113 at all three outfield positions, just in the last two years. And on and on and on.

Then Friedman hands Maddon a box filled with all these puzzle pieces, and the manager finds a way to wiggle them all into place. Always.

But science class isn't in session 24/7, because Maddon's feel for the human side of baseball surpasses his feel for shifts, lineups and what he often calls "data-mentals."

What other manager believes it's a problem when his players spend too many hours at the park? What other manager uses phrases like this 2014 spring favorite: "Never permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure?" What other manager wages a never-ending battle to release that pressure by inviting penguins, tropical birds and 20-foot pythons into his clubhouse, just to change the conversation.

This is the genius of Joe Maddon at work. You'll definitely never hear him described with the phrase, "drill sergeant."

"This is one of those places where you get to be yourself," says DeJesus, who played for five teams before getting traded to Tampa Bay in August, then couldn't wait to sign a two-year deal with the Rays over the winter. "You get to let your skills shine out there, and you can be yourself. Joe always encourages you to have other passions off the field. He wants you to come to the field prepared to focus for three or four hours and then go get your mind off the game. I never had a manager like that. And that's probably why he wins year after year after year."

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