Spring Training 2011 Question Of The Day: Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon has been doing great work for (at least) three seasons, but if the Rays wind up going to the playoffs again, Maddon will probably have done his greatest work yet.

There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Tampa Bay Rays.

No fooling around this time. Here's your Question of the Day:

Will Joe Maddon win his second Manager of the Year Award in four years?

Entering this season, the Rays are decided underdogs. Yes, last year they won 96 games finished -- just like they did in 2008 -- ahead of the Yankees and the Red Sox. What would someone have said, four or five years ago, if you'd predicted that would happen twice in three years?

But it did happen, and when you're handing out credit, Joe Maddon's right up there with Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, and all the geniuses profiled so lovingly in Jonah Keri's new book.

Fortunately for Maddon, the 2011 Rays' rotation is set, and impressively. Entering the season, anyway, Maddon doesn't have to worry about David Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Hellickson. Sure, Hellickson's a rookie. He's also the No. 1 pitching prospect in the game. And the other four-fifths of the rotation is battle-tested and ready for war.

So Maddon doesn't have to worry much about that one-third of his job.

The other two-thirds, though? Sheesh.

Tampa Bay's relievers finished last season with an American League-best 3.33 ERA. Seven Rays pitched more than 40 innings in relief. Of those seven, exactly one -- Andy Sonnanstine is back this season ... and Sonnanstine's 4.44 ERA was the highest in the septet. Essentially, Maddon will deploy an entirely rebuilt bullpen.

That would be enough for a lot of managers, it really would.

This manager, though?

The Rays have a great every-day third baseman in Evan Longoria.

They've got a perfectly fine center fielder in B.J. Upton.

And as far as regular players go, that's just about it.

Which leaves seven positions and nine or 10 players, at least one of whom, Ben Zobrist, might see action at six of those positions over the course of the long season.

Specifically, Zobrist might play left field, center field, right field, shortstop, second base, and first base. And if Evan Longoria takes the occasional day off ... well, Zobrist is likely to start a game or two at third base, too.

Johnny Damon will play some left field and some DH, and might see some action at first base.

Sean Rodriguez can play almost anywhere that Zobrist can play, and probably will.

Manny Ramirez ... well, we can only hope he gets a few games in left field, if only for entertainment's sake.

Among all the moving parts, those four figure to be the most moving. But there's also a couple of catchers, both of whom with distinct skills, and a couple of backup outfielders who have their uses, too.

Generally speaking, managers get too much credit for putting together their lineups every day. Generally speaking, managers have a limited number of reasonable choices, both in terms of who's in the lineup and how they're lined up. Joe Maddon? Almost every day for six months, he'll have to choose between any number of reasonable choices. And while the difference between those choices adds up to almost nothing over the course of nine innings, over the course of 162 games it could make the difference between winning 85 games and winning 92.

Which is why, if the Tampa Bay Rays do win 92 games, Maddon should probably be a unanimous choice for Manager of the Year.

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