You can write it down: The Rays will be the sleeper of their division.
Sure, the rejuvenated Toronto Blue Jays are the talk of the offseason. All they have to do to win the division and go to the postseason for the first time since 1993 is show up. They're that good.
And the surprising Baltimore Orioles will be even better than they were in 2012, when they won an AL Wild Card berth, ending years of disappointment at Camden Yards.
The Yankees are the Yankees, and even with all the turmoil in the Bronx, they're still the Yankees. Enough said.
But to suggest the Rays -- who traded pitcher James Shields to Kansas City and lost center fielder B.J. Upton to free agency -- will be weaker is a huge mistake. In fact, I believe they'll be even better than they were last season, when they just missed advancing to the postseason.
Two years ago, there was a mass exodus of premier players, led by Carl Crawford, and yet Tampa Bay staged a miraculous finish to win the 2011 AL Wild Card. Had it not been for a disastrous Sept. 11-18 road trip, when the Rays lost seven of eight games during stops in Baltimore, New York and Boston, Tampa Bay would've been in the postseason for the fourth time in the past four years in 2012.
The Rays still need an impact hitter, but with AL Cy Young Award winner David Price anchoring one of the best pitching staffs in the league, they should be in most of their games. It would be nice if the offense could be more productive, but their young arms make up for that, even without Shields.
"Not just one person needs to step up and fill James Shields' shoes," said Price. "This is a team effort, and it doesn't have to be a pitcher. A position player can go out there and step up and fill his shoes a little bit."
The Rays' offense was 13th in the AL in hits last season, 11th in runs and 12th in OPS. Maddon believes the cycle is changing in the AL, that defense and pitching will dominate in the future throughout the league. He thinks "offense has come back to the pack."
Maddon said that after adding shortstop Yunel Escobar and first baseman James Loney, whose defense overshadows their hitting.
The addition of veteran second baseman Kelly Johnson, who batted just .225 for the Blue Jays last season, means Ben Zobrist will become the everyday right fielder.
"I love the challenge of what we do and how we do it," said Maddon. "We're not going to be able to outhit our mistakes or outhit the other team nightly. We're not going to spend that dough to be that group anyway."
But still, an impact hitter to go with All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria would almost guarantee a trip to the postseason for Tampa Bay. Longoria played in just 74 games last season because of a partially torn left hamstring.
The hitter could be Wil Myers, the key for the Rays in the Shields trade. Tampa Bay fans are excited about the 22-year-old outfielder, considered among the Minor League's best hitters last season. He batted .314 with 37 homers and 109 RBIs while climbing from Double-A Northwest Arkansas to Triple-A Omaha.
Myers has been invited to the Spring Training with the big league club and will get every opportunity to make the team. He's probably in the same category Washington's Bryce Harper was a year ago.
There's no doubt Myers will be at Tropicana Field before too long, but he'll probably open the season at Triple-A Durham. His potential for power and his overall ability should make for a short stay in the Minor Leagues.
"We're much more focused on the process than really what the back of his baseball card will read in a year, two [or] three from now," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friendman said on MLB.com's Hot Stove show.
"We're just keeping an open mind. We're just excited to get a chance to watch him every day and be around him. We'll have a much better feel for where things stand once we really get into that. It's not fair to make declarative statements one way or the other."
Said Maddon: "I've always felt that it should be easier for a young player to make the team when the season is in progress as opposed to out of Spring Training."
Luke Scott, who had a rough season as the DH in 2012, has been re-signed and could be an unexpected piece for the offense. Scott had shoulder surgery just before coming to Tampa Bay and never found his groove. He missed 45 games during two trips to the disabled list and ended with a .229 batting average, just 14 homers and 55 RBIs in 96 games.
Maddon isn't bashful when he says "we'll be good." That's what he'll repeat to his players next week in Port Charlotte, and the bottom line is they'll listen and believe.
Just because the Rays don't have the resources of the other AL East teams shouldn't be an excuse. Or, as Maddon put it: "We might not have everything everybody else has, but that doesn't mean we're not successful. We look at it as an interesting challenge for everybody in the organization. We look at it as something that can bring out the best in everybody in the organization. There's no downside."
And that's why the Rays will be winners again in 2013.