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Joe Maddon still likes Rays' AL East chances despite expected heavy losses

December 7, 2010 |  1:04 pm

Maddon_300 Former Angels bench coach Joe Maddon said many of his friends thought he was crazy for taking the Tampa Bay managerial job back in 2005, because there simply was no way the Rays could compete with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the rugged American League East.

Two division titles and one World Series berth later, no one is questioning Maddon's sanity, though the always-optimistic Rays manager probably raised a few more eyebrows at the winter meetings Tuesday when he predicted that Tampa Bay, despite heavy losses to free agency, could challenge for another playoff berth.

"With all the guys leaving, it probably will be difficult next season, but we still have a strong core of players and a great starting pitching staff," Maddon said. "I believe that, somehow, if we can get some kind of bullpen back together, we can get into the 90-win area."

The cash-strapped Rays are likely to lose star left fielder Carl Crawford, slugging first baseman Carlos Pena, closer Rafael Soriano (who led the league with 45 saves last season) and set-up man Grant Balfour, and they already lost dominating set-up man Joaquin Benoit to Detroit.

But the Rays still have a decent nucleus of position players, with third baseman Evan Longoria, center fielder B.J. Upton and utility man Ben Zobrist, and a superb rotation of David Price, Matt Garza, James Shields, Jeff Niemann and  Wade Davis.

The Red Sox, though, have already acquired star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to add to their stacked roster, and the Yankees are making a strong bid to bring free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee to its team of superstars.

"I don't want to say it's nearly impossible, but it's quite challenging, and it won't be easy," Maddon said. "The most devastating thing for a team is to lose games late on a consistent basis. Having a good bullpen in place will permit us to be solid. That's going to be the key to our success this year."

-- Mike DiGiovanna in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Photo: Joe Maddon. Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / US Presswire