PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Manager Joe Maddon has always harped on his belief that playing in the American League East has benefitted the Rays, and this spring his message is no different.
"I really believe that good competition always brings out the best in us," Maddon said. "Every time you play an American League East team -- it's always been that way, but more so now. The competition on a nightly basis is going to be extreme. It is wide open.
"Obviously you talk about what the Blue Jays did, with getting the vast number of players from the Marlins. I really like what Boston's done. You look at a lot of the gamers that they've picked up, plus their bullpen is really good. One thing about this division that stands out to me is the bullpens. The bullpens are thick, they're all very good. Everybody is talking about the Yankees' age; whatever, these guys are still really good, and Baltimore believes that [it] can win. Every night it's going to be that way, and that's half of your season, basically, where you're playing within your own division. It is wide open, but I feel very strongly about what we're going to be able to do also."
Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman also addressed the benefits of playing in the AL East.
"It allows us to play in more of a playoff-type atmosphere than you can do in the regular season elsewhere and keeps our guys sharp," said Friedman. "It's incredibly tough. In our opinion, it's the toughest division in all of professional sports."
Pitchers make strong impression on Maddon
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Manager Joe Maddon beamed after the Rays' first workout for pitchers and catchers Wednesday at the Charlotte Sports Complex.
"It's really nice," Maddon said. "Everybody comes in in great shape on every team, but our guys are in very good shape. We have good arms, and everybody knows that. And you add different guys that you haven't seen before that, they also have very live arms."
In particular, Maddon said Mike Montgomery, Roberto Hernandez, David Price, Fernando Rodney, Jeff Niemann and Enny Romero caught his eye.
"Up and down the line there are just so many good arms," Maddon said. "It's exciting to watch. As a group, they did so well last year. Hopefully we can repeat something similar to that and figure out a couple of more ways to win games."
Of note, Niemann said he experienced his best first-day bullpen session on Wednesday. If the Rays began the season tomorrow, the first four pitchers in the rotation would be Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb with a healthy competition for the No. 5 spot. Maddon said that Niemann is "right in the thick of things" to claim the final rotation spot.
"Over the last couple of years he may have been the best pitcher in stretches that we had," Maddon said. "You just don't know where he's going to be. … Just have to wait and see on him. We'll have to evaluate him as we go along."
Niemann experienced a trying season in 2012. After spending three and a half months on the disabled list with a fractured right fibula, he returned to the team only to experience slight inflammation in his right rotator cuff. How Niemann comes back from those physical maladies will be a huge factor in who wins the No. 5 spot.
While youngsters such as Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, and Chris Archer are clearly in the hunt, Maddon noted that if indeed Niemann is healthy, the No. 5 spot will likely come down to Niemann and Hernandez.
Johnson reports, excited to join Rays
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- New free-agent acquisition Kelly Johnson reported to camp on Wednesday. The infielder/outfielder explained that being on the other side against the Rays attracted him to the organization. He also offered a story about when he played for the D-backs and Kirk Gibson took over as the team's manager.
"All of a sudden during Spring Training, we're watching film on how to run a first-and-third play and how to run a bunt play, things like that," Johnson said. "We're watching a lot of Rays film on how to do it. I think that's coaches and Joe [Maddon] himself. They establish great fundamental teams and guys who can do everything.
"They can hit-and-run, bunt, drive in a run, steal bases, they can do everything -- and it's tough to prepare for. If you're playing a game and even if you're winning, you're kind of nervous about what the Rays are going to do. 'When are they going to come back? When is this going to happen?' It never is a matter of if, it's when."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.