PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - Among three things Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon savors most are fine wines, young baseball talent and continuity.
With the latter two in quantity and an abundance of pitching, the Rays are solid bets to be spraying champagne around the clubhouse come October.
"The division crown is going to pass through Tampa at some point," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Their pitching is too good and they've got too much depth for it not to. If [your team's] bullpen is having to get 12 outs [to close a game] and if they're bullpen only has to get seven outs . . . Well, you do the math."
Since 2008, the year slugging third baseman Evan Longoria arrived on the scene and top draft pick David Price was called up in September, only the Yankees have won more regular-season games (564) than the Rays (550) among AL East contenders.
"One of the biggest reasons we talk about the Yankees and how great they were between 1995 and recently is that Jeter has been there and Pettitte's been there and Rivera's been there and Posada was there," Maddon said. "This really dynamic core group of players were there for like 15 years. That's pretty solid, man. That kind of continuity with that quality leads to championships."
Maddon's teams have reached the playoffs three of the last four seasons, averaging 92 wins. They won 92 games last year before bowing to the Red Sox in the AL Division Series -- and they did it without two of their best young building blocks playing full seasons.
Outfielder Wil Myers, a midseason call-up, was impressive enough in just 88 games to be named AL Rookie of the Year. Swinging with confidence from the outset, he hit .293 with 13 homers and 53 RBIs.
Righthander Alex Cobb was as tough as any pitcher in the league, going 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Cobb was particularly nasty against the Yankees, going 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in four starts. He was limited to 22 starts after being struck near his right ear by a line drive hit by Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, but returned to go 3-0, 2.57 in September.
Maddon, who relishes the idea of having his core group back from last year, calls having full seasons from Myers and Cobb "a big plus."
Cobb is just happy not to have to pitch against Myers.
"He has raw power and endless potential," Cobb said. "The thing people don't see is the way he handles pressure like it's nonexistent. You don't see that from a lot of big-name prospect guys."
The scary thing is that Maddon says Myers has many ways to improve, offensively and defensively.
"I know there are some things I need to work on," Myers said. "I had a good July, a bad August and a pretty good September. I don't want to have a whole month where I struggle. I need to limit those games by figuring out what's wrong. If I can help the team, it means I've had a good year, personally. We have high expectations. The biggest thing I take out of last season was just the bitter taste left in our mouths after the postseason."
Cobb is central to a pitching staff that not only features the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner in Price, but Matt Moore, who went 17-4 last season (despite 76 walks in 1501/3 innings) and Chris Archer, 9-7 with a 3.22 ERA. Although Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year and a 12-game winner in 2013, will be sidelined for the season's first six to eight weeks after elbow surgery, the Rays shouldn't miss a beat with righthanded prospect Jake Odorizzi and veteran lefthander Erik Bedard among candidates for the fifth starter's role.
With attendance a constant battle in Tampa Bay and Price's free agency on the horizon, there was a presumption that the Rays might deal Price this offseason. Maddon is delighted the team did not.
"It's really good for us the way it all broke this winter, whether you want to talk about getting Loney [first baseman James] back, David Price not being traded or picking up Balfour [closer Grant], it's all pretty good stuff."