Rays' Joyce works hard to be Maddon's choice for right field

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Professor Joe Maddon gave outfielder Matt Joyce(notes) high marks during the individual player meetings the Tampa Bay Rays held on Tuesday.

Big deal, you might say. This is baseball, not an office. Get in the cage and hit some line drives, OK?

But Maddon's Rays preach that improvement starts in the mind, so they place a lot of importance on the meetings, which review — sometimes in excruciating detail — how players are excelling and also how they need to get better.

Joyce, 25, has gotten a lot better in the past year, Maddon said.

"All of the things we asked him to do last year at his meeting, he did," Maddon said.

These kids today. Sometimes they do listen.

It was critical that Joyce did get better, considering how lousy the 2009 season went for him. After having a strong rookie season (.831 OPS, 12 homers in 242 at-bats) with the Tigers, he came to the Rays in the Edwin Jackson(notes) deal.

Expected by many to be the starting right fielder — after all, why would general manager Andrew Friedman have given up Jackson for someone who couldn't help them? — Joyce instead found himself banged up in spring training. He only made the team because B.J. Upton(notes) started the season on the disabled list.

Quickly sent down to the minors, Joyce only saw action in 11 big league games with the Rays. But it wasn't a lost season — mostly because he remembered the tasks from his individual player meeting.

"It felt like, every week, I was working on something different," Joyce said. "Whether it was baserunning, or in the outfield, trying to get a better jump without hopping first. I remember they mentioned that a lot.

"I think they look more at the smaller things. Does he take that extra base? Is he throwing somebody out at the plate or [another base]? Is he hustling and taking his walks when he needs to?"

Maddon says Joyce took the critiques to heart and head.

"His work ethic definitely became better," Maddon said. "His defense became better. His throwing became better. I'm not just looking for him to be this offensive threat. He took all of that and did a great job. That's the one thing that was critical."

As camp opens, Joyce seems like the leader for the right-field job again, though the Rays have four or five options in case he doesn't turn out to be the guy.

Not that Joyce wants them to be considering alternatives.

"I think everyone's aware of the situation," Joyce said. "I think, talking with Friedman and the coaching staff, they're going to give me a good shot and a good run at it."

When asked if the Rays, on paper, were being overlooked in the coming AL East race, Joyce smiled.

"The funny thing I learned, you can’t look at anything on paper," Joyce said. "You look at Detroit a couple of years ago, in '08. On paper, they should have won the World Series. You just never know, that’s why you have to go out and play."

But ...

"I think we're a little overlooked," Joyce said, still smiling. "You look at the payrolls of the other teams and you get a little antsy to play them. You want to show them what you can do."

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David Brown is currently touring the Gulf Coast of Florida for Big League Stew's annual Spring Swing. Follow his moves on Twitter @answerdave.

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