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Evan Longoria leads Rays against AL East as 2011 season prepares to start

Evan Longoria is the third baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays. Even with signing free agents like Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, much of the Rays success in 2011 will depend upon Evan Longoria.

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Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria throws long toss before the Rays spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., Thursday, March 17.

AP

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The revamped Tampa Bay Rays have a new look, along with the same expectations of staying on top of baseball's toughest division.

The cost-conscious AL East champions slashed payroll by about 40 percent this winter, yet remain confident they'll be able to hold their own against the big-spending Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees this season.

A talented young pitching rotation led by Cy Young Award runner-up David Price is the biggest reason. Manager Joe Maddon believes the team has a chance to be solid offensively, too, with veterans Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez filling holes created by the departures of Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena.

"I think we drip with intangibles," said Maddon, who has guided the Rays to two of the past three division titles with teams that thrived on pitching, defense and speed.

An offseason of change — pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett were traded while the Rays also lost Crawford, Pena and virtually the entire bullpen to free agency — has not altered the formula for success.

"We're not going to go out there and spend an exorbitant amount of money on one or two free agents, but we get really good, athletic young players and mix them with some nice veterans," Maddon said. "But mainly we have to play our style of baseball. ... We have to believe in it. ... That's who we are. We'll never run away from it."

Damon and Ramirez both are motivated to prove they can still be productive players, with Damon settling into Crawford's spot in left field and Ramirez taking over as the designated hitter.

They are among six active players with at least 2,500 career hits and are being counted on to provide leadership in the clubhouse, too.

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"I know I've got to be more of a leader at this point in my career. I have no problem doing that," said the 37-year-old Damon, who is beginning his 17th season.

Ramirez, 38, is a 12-time All-Star who was slowed by injuries while hitting .298 with nine homers and 42 RBIs in 90 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox last season.

While Damon agreed to a $5.25 million, one-year contract that could be worth more with incentives, Ramirez accepted a $2 million, one-year deal — down from the $20 million he earned in 2010 — and says he is motivated not only to help Tampa Bay get back to the playoffs but to prove he's still one of the game's best hitters.

"I just want to stay healthy. That's my main course," Ramirez said. "If I do that I think everything takes care of itself."

But for all the talk about what Damon and Ramirez can add, the Rays are still Evan Longoria's team.

The three-time All-Star third baseman, who hit .294 with 22 homers and 104 RBIs last season, is excited about being sandwiched between his new teammates in the batting order. He's just as excited about what he believes the Rays are capable of accomplishing despite losing Crawford, the most accomplished player in Tampa Bay's relatively brief franchise history.

While conceding the defending division champions lost a lot, Longoria looks at the starting rotation of Price, James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and rookie Jeremy Hellickson, as well as an everyday lineup boasting young up and comers such as B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist and Reid Brignac, and sees no reason the Rays can't repeat.

"We've got the right guys," Longoria said. "It's just a matter of putting the pieces together that win."

Maddon's biggest concern is the bullpen.

The Rays lost All-Star closer Rafael Soriano, as well as Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler and have rebuilt the unit around the lone holdover, long reliever Andy Sonnanstine, and newcomers Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz and Joel Peralta.

With no clear-cut closer on the roster, the manager likely will handle that role by committee.

Maddon insisted he's not worried, noting that when the Rays broke camp a year ago, "there's no way you can tell me anyone expected us" to have one of the top relief units in baseball.

"Bullpens are like that. They're volatile. They pop up. They go away," Maddon said. "I kind of enjoy the fact that people aren't expecting much out of us. We'll see."

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