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02/29/12 4:47 PM EST

Rays might be even better in 2012

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla.--- Parked outside the Rays clubhouse Wednesday was a '56 Chevrolet Bel Air, with Dick Bosman and Tom Foley trying to fix the wiring system. "Solid, isn't it?" said Joe Maddon of what is his spring new ride.

"Solid." Fins. Lift the left rear taillight and there's the gas cap. A car originally sold five months after Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" was first heard on the radio.

Inside, in Maddon's office there was a sheet that Carlos Pena had dropped off the previous day with a quote from Martin Luther King.

Some things haven't changed with the Rays, no matter that they've made the playoffs three of the last four years, thrice finishing ahead of the Red Sox. They may well again have the best starting pitching in the league, as they did last season when their starters led the league in ERA, quality starts, innings pitched and lowest OPS against, all accomplished in the AL East.

But this is 2012, and Maddon senses some things are different. "I think there's a different feeling here," he says. "There's such a positive vibe, such anticipation. I really think these guys feel very good about where they are and where they want to be."

At this time last spring, Maddon, Andrew Friedman and pitching coach Jim Hickey were scrambling to try to replace six relief pitchers. This year they are not only looking at seven or eight starters -- including rookie Matt Moore -- but may go six-to-eight deep in the bullpen, not including Matt Bush, the former No. 1 pick of the Padres who has turned his life, arm and position around, and could well end up in the bullpen in the final weeks of the season.

"I think this is the first time I ever remember us having this kind of depth," Maddon says. "We have it with position players, as well." In reality, the only position question marks going into the exhibition games appear to be shortstop -- between Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez -- and the backup catcher, behind Jose Molina.

"I think this has a chance to be a special team," says B.J. Upton. "We were not satisfied with just making the playoffs and losing in the first round, not two years in a row. We're good enough so that we should be thinking about the World Series. The pitching. The defense (John Dewan's ACTA sports projects the Rays to have the most runs saved by their defense of any AL team, with Evan Longoria the best at third and Ben Zobrist tops at second). This can be special."

Understand that this is not the way Upton talked in the past. Oh, he's been affable and courteous and positive, but he often added each statement with a parenthetic clause. Now, at the ripe age of 27, Upton has impressed everyone on the staff with a new confidence. When Maddon talks of the "momentum" the players gathered coming from 10 games back of the Red Sox in September and making the playoffs on Longoria's walk-off homer, it is clear he first thinks of Upton. "Look at what B.J. did in September, and you'll see where he's coming from," says hitting coach Derek Shelter. Indeed, Upton had a 1.048 OPS in September, including a .606 slugging percentage.

"It really comes down to the mental side of the game," says Upton. Sounding like a pupil of the late, great psychologist Harvey Dorfman, Upton says "I've learned to go one at-bat at a time, one pitch at a time and focus on each and every pitch. It took me time to do that in my career, but it came to me last season as the year wore on. I let things worry me in the past. No more." Since Upton was always expected to blossom into stardom, he was always dealing with what the late Kemer Brett called "the curse of unlimited potential," a curse Maddon says "few of us would know anything about."

Longoria injured his ankle in the second game of the season, wasn't close to healthy until the end of May and was never fully right, as evidenced by the fact that he had surgery for nerve damage in his left foot at the end of the season. Hence the .244 average and .850 OPS, although he also hit 31 homers and, in their historic September, had 27 walks, 16 strikeouts and a 1.043 OPS. "I feel great again," says Longoria, 26.

This will be Desmond Jennings' first full season. They have brought back Pena and Luke Scott for power; Matt Joyce is coming off 19 homers. There is excitement for the continuity is watching Hak-Ju Lee and Tim Beckham play shortstop. Beckham, once taken with the first pick in the First-Year Player Draft over Buster Posey, has dropped 13 pounds and lit up camp with his athleticism.

But, as Upton says, most of all, it's about pitching. David Price. James Shields. Wade Davis. Jeremy Hellickson. Jeff Niemann. Moore. Alex Cobb. "I can guarantee that we use seven or eight starters before it's over," says Friedman.

With Kyle Farnsworth, there is J.P. Howell (who appears sound again) Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Josh Lueke, Burke Badenhop and, in time, Bush, who draws nothing but superlatives from Bosman. It also helps that they have depth in Durham.

Still, it won't be easy. The Yankees clearly are going to be really good if they stay healthy. The Rangers and Angels appear to be playoff teams. "I get tired of hearing the Red Sox are underdogs," says Friedman. "That's ridiculous. For 4 1/2 months they were the best team in baseball in 10 years."

So the scrum just to make it into October hasn't changed, neither has the creative way Maddon builds trust and confidence in, and with, his players. "I do think we've changed in certain ways," says Upton, "and the biggest way is that we now have depth and experience to go with talent. We've never begin Spring Training so excited and confident as a team, so this is a different year."

Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.