With the challenge of heading into a season with younger and less-proven teammates, a rookie manager replacing one of the game's best and a difficult early schedule made more arduous by a spring that saw four key players land on the disabled list, the face of the Rays franchise offers a very basic goal. • "To be competitive," Evan Longoria said. "I think that's the simple answer. Nobody wants to play a full year where you never give yourself a fighting chance to play in the postseason." • Having joined the Rays in April 2008 and fueling their remarkable six-year run that included four playoff appearances, Longoria had known only success until last season, when grand expectations turned into a royal mess as they could not overcome a 24-42 start, including a brutal 1-14 stretch, which led to a 77-85 finish, far from contention. • That experience will be a major point of reference for Longoria as they try to navigate the first part of this season without starting pitchers Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly and Alex Colome plus second baseman Nick Franklin.
"My hope is we don't really start putting those pressures on ourselves like we did last year because I think that kind of suffocated us," Longoria said. "I think the further along we got, the more we were looking backward and not looking ahead. We were wondering why things weren't working and what we could've done instead of what we can do.
"So I think that that thought alone is going to keep us moving forward, knowing that as the season progresses we are going to continue to get healthier and we're going to continue to put ourselves in a better and better position to move into postseason contention."
New baseball operations president Matt Silverman and manager Kevin Cash plan to manipulate the roster and schedule their pitchers creatively to offset the absences as much as possible. But playing 25 of their first 28 games against American League East opponents, starting today with the defending champion Orioles at the Trop, and having only three days off in the first 42 (and two in 38 after Thursday) will test any such plan.
"We're going to find out a lot real soon," Cash said.
Longoria, 29, has some ideas of his own, drawn from already noticeable changes from the previous regime, that can make significant differences.
One has to do with what the third baseman considers a better atmosphere in the clubhouse.
"There's a lot of guys in here that there's not a whole lot of ego," he said. "I don't think we by any means were leading the league in ego in past years, but we're a little bit younger, and maybe not (all) in terms of age but in service time, with a lot of guys in their first two-three years of playing.
"Those kind of players a lot of time are the most enthusiastic, and the guys that bring a ton to the clubhouse environment and really, I think, help the veteran guys do their job better. …
"One of the things this spring that has really motivated me and some of the other guys and made the clubhouse so good is that there are a lot of guys that enjoy being in here and want to soak in this whole environment and aren't taking it for granted."
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Another is with what he considers an improved approach during the spring by the hitters.
"I really hope that everybody in here becomes as unselfish as you could be, because I think that's how we're going to win games and that's how we're going to score runs," he said. "Really taking our own personal statistics out of it in terms of thinking about what the numbers are going to look like at the end of the game and just worry about whatever the situation dictates, and you try to do that."
And a third is a sense that a lot of the Rays have something to prove, including himself, coming off a season when he posted a career-low .724 on-base plus slugging percentage and relatively pedestrian numbers, with a .253 average, 22 homers and 91 RBIs while playing in all 162 games.
"I feel like we all — I don't think necessarily there are guys in here that are content, but you really can't be if you want to play to the level you want," he said. "Being content is not a good thing."
That all said, Longoria — with eight years and a guaranteed $121.5 million remaining on his contract — said he is excited and eager to see how it all works out.
"Personally, I think it's going to be fun," he said. "We have a great group of guys that is really going to embrace the differences that this year's club brings, and the challenges that come with that."
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.