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Rays hopeful they can help Longoria stay healthy this season

Associated Press

2/13/2013 7:57:56 PM

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Evan Longoria says his surgically-repaired left hamstring feels good, and the Tampa Bay Rays are determined to do everything they can make sure that doesn't change.

Keeping the 27-year-old slugger's bat in the middle of the lineup -- and off the disabled list -- figures to be one of the keys to remaining competitive in the rugged AL East, so the team is pondering ways to help the three-time All-Star stay on the field for an entire season.

Longoria has spent time on the DL three of the past five seasons, including a three-month stretch last summer that might have cost the Rays a playoff berth.

Tampa Bay went 41-44 during the 85-game stretch he was sidelined, compared to 47-27 in the career-low 74 games he started at either third base or as the designated hitter.

"There's no greater proof to how important Evan Longoria is to us than last year. Keeping him on the field is extremely important," Rays executive vice-president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said.

To that end, the club is contemplating ways to keep their star fresh for a run they hope will continue deep into October. That could include giving him occasional days off, as well as more starts at DH.

"As everybody knows, his work ethic is top shelf. He's going to do whatever he can to stay on the field," Friedman said. "That coupled with how good our trainers are, I think gives us a great chance to be able to do that."

Longoria spent a combined 143 games on the DL in 2008, 2011 and 2012, yet has managed to post impressive numbers over the first six years of his career.

The Rays rewarded him this off-season with a 10-year contract that added six guaranteed seasons and $100 million to an existing deal which called for him to earn $36.6 million over the next four seasons. The new deal includes a team option for 2023 that could make the contract worth $144.6 million over 11 years.

Encouraged to arrive to spring training early to begin working out with team trainers, Longoria reported to camp with pitchers and catchers. The first full-squad workout is Sunday, and there's no definitive timetable for him to begin getting at-bats in exhibition games.

What's most important now is Longoria feels good about the progress he's made since undergoing minor surgery on his hamstring in November.

"It was really a surprise to me. Two weeks (after surgery) I was feeling like a new man," he said. "It was something I was hesitant to do at the beginning, because every time you have to go under the knife and have them take something out or fix something is very nerve racking. I was a little bit nervous going into it, but the way it's responded, the way my workouts have gone after it I couldn't have been happier with doing it."

Longoria is also encouraged by the moves the new-look Rays have made to bolster the roster this off-season. In addition to trading pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City for a collection of promising minor league prospects, the team acquired first baseman James Loney, second baseman Kelly Johnson and shortstop Yunel Escobar.

Like Friedman and manager Joe Maddon, Longoria is confident that the Rays remain strong enough to contend in a division that sent the Yankees and Orioles to the playoffs last season and figures to be even more competitive with Toronto expecting to be one of the most improved teams in baseball.

"I actually did something I've never done. I actually looked at the roster before I came to spring this year. It's good to see. The further you get along in your career, when we sign free agents you know more about these guys," Longoria said.

"Bringing in Escobar and Kelly Johnson in the middle is going to be huge for us," he added. "The one question in our lineup every year has been the shortstop. We've shuffled that position more than any one."

Maddon believes the team has a chance to be as good defensively as it has ever been. And he's counting on the off-season additions to help make a difference offensively, too.

But no one is expected to provide as big a boost as a healthy Longoria. Despite insisting his goal is to play every game, he seems receptive to the idea of the club's plan to be proactive in trying to keep him fresh.

"If I have to take a day off here or there to not go on the DL, to not have to deal with that kind of stress or worry, I'll do it," Longoria said. "To try to avoid the DL is going to be the biggest thing for me."