It's here where many baseball conversations center on the best teams, offseason acquisitions and postseason expectations. The more you gauge the so-called experts on the 2014 campaign, the more you get the feeling the Tampa Bay Rays will be a factor in October.
Great pitching and pitching depth. Young core. Balance. Defense. Winning environment. You get it. The club looks a lot like last year's playoff team, but with a couple exceptions -- most notably, the addition of relief pitchers Heath Bell and Grant Balfour. But there was another move that didn't garner as much attention, yet could turn out to be significant in the short and long term.
On Dec. 3, the Rays acquired catcher Ryan Hanigan from the Cincinnati Reds in a three-way deal that also involved the Arizona Diamondbacks. Tampa Bay expects Hanigan to be behind the plate the majority of the time this season. From the outset, Hanigan immersed himself in hours of video with an eye for getting to know his new staff. That was before he even had a chance to catch his hurlers.
A lifelong member of the Reds, Hanigan makes his money with elite game-calling and throwing skills. He brings those abilities to a club that ranked near the bottom of the league in throwing out basestealers in 2013. The tandem of Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton threw out only 22 percent of runners attempting to swipe a base. Hanigan cut down 40 percent for Cincinnati in part-time action. In 2012, he erased 48 percent, which was the best percentage in all of baseball. Oh, and by the way, Hanigan's catcher's ERA of 3.05 was also the lowest in either league.
It doesn't happen by accident. Hanigan is never satisfied. He's a diligent worker and thinker when it comes to improving on his craft. Hanigan is self motivated and takes great pride in his skill set.
"You have to work on your game constantly," Hanigan said. "It's my craft, and I want to be the guy and establish myself and prove myself, and keep proving myself."
In order to do so, Hanigan trains like a pitcher by throwing almost every day in the winter. He does lots of long toss, coupled with a lot of arm-strengthening exercises.
"I usually get to the point where I don't think about it," Hanigan said. "Everything's locked in and it's a matter of maintaining my strength my flexibility more than my mechanics. If something is off, the ball's not coming out of my hand right. If I'm making wild throws or something I'm not happy with, I'll look at the video and get back to what's right."
Hanigan adds that at this point of his career, he knows his body and knows what needs to happen to be successful.
The 33-year-old has been around long enough to know that self motivation is the key. Hanigan gives credit to instructors he's had along the way but says, "At the end of the day you have to be your own coach."
Hanigan also knows how important it is to establish a relationship with his pitchers on and off the field. While acknowledging the Rays' pitching staff has a great combination of work ethic and talent, Hanigan talks about the importance of learning the individual personalities of his pitchers off the field. Whether it's going out to dinner or hanging out on the golf course, it all contributes to success.
"What makes a guy tick, how to push them, how not to push them, when to lay off," Hanigan said. "The psychological part is huge, so I think I understand how they are and what drives them. The little things they're thinking about on the mound and off the mound."
It all matters.
The organization and its fans are thinking about a fifth playoff appearance in a seven-year span. With Hanigan behind the plate and in the heads of the vaunted Rays rotation, there's a great chance that will happen.