Rays will be last team standing in '14

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OK, the envelope, please. And the winner of the 2014 World Series will be ...

The team with the third-lowest payroll in the major leagues. ...

A team that roared into the postseason last year and still, somehow or other, managed to finish last in attendance in the major leagues. ...

The team with the scariest young rotation in the major leagues. ...

A team that all but waved adios last fall to its favorite Cy Young, and then rocked the house all spring after seeing him walk back in the clubhouse door in February. ...

The team that does the best job in the major leagues of fusing together the science of baseball and the humanity of baseball. ...

And, maybe most important, a team that apparently never got that crazy directive from the Baseball Jinx Police that says you should, never, ever, ever talk out loud about winning the World Series.

In other words, the winner of the 2014 World Series will be ... those Tampa Bay Rays.

Heck, why not? It's about the only thing, after all, that the Rays haven't done over the last six years.

They've won more games (550) since 2008, you know, than any team in the sport except the Yankees (who have won just 14 more, despite a slight $900-million spending gap between those two teams).

They've spun off more 90-win seasons in that span (five in six years) than any team in the sport. You knew that, too, didn't you?

And they've made it to the postseason four times in those six seasons, tied with the Cardinals, Yankees and Phillies for the most trips to October of any team in the sport. Which is pretty amazing in its own right.

But what the Rays haven't done is finished the deal. So why not this year? Why not this team? Ask yourself that. Seriously. Why not?

"We've been to the World Series," says their tactician/magician manager, Joe Maddon. "We've been to the playoffs. We've had some remarkable moments. ... I mean, we've done some really good stuff. And really interesting stuff. Stuff that I think can be talked about in a manner that indicates it's a pretty good group. But the one thing we have to do eventually is win that World Series. Hopefully, it's going to happen sooner rather than later. And I think this group is very capable of that."

So Joe Maddon marched into spring training and did something that most teams, and most managers, would be terrified to do. With the assistance of his franchise-cornerstone third baseman, Evan Longoria, the manager coined the catchphrase that would set the Win It All mission statement for this team:

"Eat Last" -- based on the Simon Sinek book, "Leaders Eat Last."

But in this case, Eat Last isn't a mellifluous way of saying, "Pass the dessert menu." It's the manager's way of saying to his team: "It's time to win." What's fascinating is that he has zero fear whatsoever of saying it. And his troops have noticed.

"Around here," says the new catcher in town, Ryan Hanigan, "I don't think they're afraid of anything, really."

Very perceptive man.

"I'm not a jinx guy," says Joe Maddon.

No kidding. Once, in another lifetime, as a minor-league manager, he used to do the stuff everyone does. Wouldn't change socks if his team was on a winning streak. Wouldn't wash his underwear. Then he asked himself: What am I doing?

"If it were that easy, nobody would ever lose," Maddon says. "I mean, if you just had to believe in a ritual and then do it all the time, who would ever lose?"

So he has set the bar. Eat last. Celebrate last. Shower in confetti last. And his team is on board.

"We've had the 90-win seasons," says pitcher Alex Cobb. "And yeah, that's cool. It showcases that we've had successful seasons. But that's not our goal. We're tired of just making it into the playoffs, and having people say, 'Yeah, they'll make it to the playoffs and we'll see what goes on then.' We need to establish ourselves as a top-of-the-league, team-to-beat franchise.

"And there's no reason," Cobb says, "that we can't do that. There's not one spot that I look up and down our lineup and say, 'We need to address that. We need something at the All-Star break to fix that.'"

Barring health calamities they can't control, he might be right. But picking a World Series winner is more complex than that. So why the Rays? Here's why:

The process

I've been in the predictions business for way too long now. It's a bad line of work. It's an annual invitation to look like a knucklehead, no matter how carefully you think these predictions through. So most likely, this means the Rays are doomed. That's how these picks usually work out, anyhow. Sorry.

But the first rule of the predictions business is: You have to pick somebody. So just for the record, here are 10 teams I easily could have doomed instead of the Rays:

• Red Sox: Deep. Loaded. Committed. Immersed in the pursuit of winning.

• Dodgers: As talented as any team in the sport. With a payroll to prove it.

• Cardinals: They could go to the World Series and win it every year.

• Nationals: I picked them last year. How'd that work out?

• Tigers: More star power than any team in the game. October is made for Justin Verlander/ Max Scherzer/ Anibal Sanchez.

• Yankees: Derek Jeter's life is scripted by Broadway. Imagine the final act.

• Orioles: Don't laugh. Very possibly the best lineup in baseball.

• Royals: There isn't a projection I've seen that agrees. But why do I keep feeling like this is their time?

• A's: Would have felt better about this pick six weeks ago.

• Braves: What I just said.

I also kicked around the Giants, Rangers, Angels and Reds. So that's half the teams in baseball that made it into the conversation. I could have doomed any of them. But if Joe Maddon doesn't believe in jinxes, neither do I. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

So why did the Rays separate themselves from that distinguished pack? Read on.

This Price is right

David Price knew he was gone. He told me himself that, on a scale of 1 to 100, he thought the chances he'd still be a Ray this spring were "probably a 5 -- or below." Well, we should have taken the over.

So when Price wound up back in this uniform, it almost felt, to his team, like it was meant to be. That something special was supposed to happen.

"We loved seeing his locker back here Opening Day," says outfielder David DeJesus. "That's a once-in-a-lifetime type of pitcher."

With Price back, his front office geared up to win, bulking up the payroll to a franchise-record $80 million. And that's a clear sign, DeJesus says, that "they're expecting big things from us. And we're expecting big things from ourselves."

Meanwhile, Price roared in and had a dominant spring (17.1 IP, 20 strikeouts, 12 hits, three walks). He didn't just look healthier and more locked in than last year. He looked, said one scout, "like he's on a mission to get off to a really fast start."

Singing backup vocals

But what makes this team a win-the-World-Series kind of band is that the three starters behind Price are dominators, too.

Cobb: "He'd be a No. 1 on a lot of clubs," says one scout. "Aggressive. Quality stuff. Around the plate with all his pitches. Likes to compete. And anybody who can throw his changeup for a swing-and-miss any time he wants, in a fastball count, is a guy who can dominate good lineups."

Chris Archer: "Best young pitcher I saw all spring," said another scout. "Unhittable. And his delivery is so clean, it's scary. His fastball was 96-97 [miles per hour] with (perfect) command. And an 88 [mph] slider, and plus changeup. Very, very impressive."

Matt Moore: Those 15 walks and 14 strikeouts, in 14.1 innings this spring, tell you how erratic Moore can be. But his 17-4 record, 3.29 ERA, .216 opponent average in 2013 tell you how spectacular he can be at his best. "Man," says Price, "17-4 with a 3.2-something ERA. I'd take that for about the next 10 years of my career."

"A lot of teams," says one scout who covers the Rays, "don't have five starters, period. This team has got four who are really good."

The catcher

It's very possible that the most important catcher to change teams this winter wasn't Brian McCann or A.J. Pierzynski. It might very well have been Hanigan -- picked up from the Reds in a three-team deal that included the Diamondbacks, then locked up to a three-year, $10.75-million contract.

"They've been looking for a catcher forever," said one scout. "And this guy might be the best catcher they've ever had."

Hanigan's selling points: Big-time defensive skills across the board. A lifetime 40-percent caught-stealing rate. A .786 career OPS against left-handed pitching. More career walks than strikeouts. And a reputation as a superior leader of staffs.

"Getting a guy like that, that's huge," says Maddon. "I mean, why is he huge? Talk to him, for like five minutes. And then watch him play, for like one inning. And you know the impact this guy can have on your team, because he's skillfully good, and then he's just totally dripping with intangibles that you want out of a catcher."

The 2013 AL Rookie of the Year

Wil Myers didn't arrive last season until June 18, for business reasons, not baseball reasons. He still managed to fit winning a Rookie of the Year award into his busy schedule.

But even more important, as we try to assess what a full season of Myers' presence might mean, is this: The Rays were three games over .500 (36-33) when he arrived last year. They were 18 over (56-38) from then on.

"If we get him going properly on a full-season basis, and you project his numbers out a bit, which I think you can, it's going to be very impressive," Maddon says. "And having said that, my big goal for him this year is to try and win a Gold Glove."

Myers still has plenty of work to do on both sides of the ball. ("I don't think it's going to be as easy for him as most people think," says one scout.) But there's something special about him.

"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."

Well, it isn't the only reason he wins. But it is a reason a team with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball has become almost a cult baseball destination.

How often do you hear it said, about a previously troubled player like Yunel Escobar, that if he can't play for Joe Maddon, he can't play anywhere? Well, that's by design, a bonus even Friedman admits he factors into roster construction.

"We get a tremendous amount of respect and discipline because we give them so much freedom," Maddon says. "You can't give a bunch of fifth graders that kind of freedom. I'm talking about a professional, accountable group of people. But when you give them freedom to be themselves, to express themselves ... I believe you're going to get so much more in return, as opposed to dictating to these people all the time, telling them how to do things, how to wear the uniform, how to wear their hair, you can't have a tattoo, whatever, how you dress getting on an airplane."

In a related development, this is a team that always seems to outperform its projections year after year. So one of these years, doesn't it seem logical that it's going to outperform itself all the way to the top of the World Series mountain top?

Well, why not this year? Why not this team? Even in the mighty AL East, there's no reason this Rays team can't be The One. And the players who have to make that happen already sense it.

"I don't want to jinx anything," says Cobb, "but this has a magical feeling already."

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