Rays camp report: A healthy Evan Longoria can take them far

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Evan Longoria’s name was not within several area codes or even one big Gulf Coast of Miguel Cabrera’s and Mike Trout’s in the AL MVP discussion last year.

So let’s fix that right here, right now.

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No, this isn’t the beginning of a recall campaign. No argument here with Cabrera finishing first and Trout second.

But if you want to talk value to a team, you cannot find anybody more important than the man they call Longo. His name must be in any preseason MVP discussion, his bat and glove in any conversation, period.

Only problem is, the Rays were stuck measuring his value in 2012 by the games he wasn't around following a partially torn hamstring suffered April 30.

With Longoria in the lineup, they went a World Series-caliber 47-27.

Without him, they went a Pirates-like 41-44.

“And he’ll say himself, he didn’t hit as well as he wanted to during that span,” AL Cy Young winner David Price says.

Nice to be needed.

Awful when your importance is measured by your absence.

“Absolutely,” Longoria says, hamstring again intact on an optimistic spring afternoon. “It’s more frustrating because it doesn’t matter what the WAR number says, or whatever statistic you want to look up. It really matters to me being on the field. Being there for my teammates.

“Being able to go home and look in the mirror and say even if I didn’t do anything I was there and I had a chance to and I was playing in the game.

“The rest of those statistics don’t really mean anything to me. If I can give my team a chance to win then, shoot, I want to be there.”

He gives the Rays a chance to win the minute he pulls into the Tropicana Field parking lot each summer afternoon.

Yes, it’s about pitching here.

Yet it is no coincidence this franchise’s ascent in 2008 corresponded with the moment its 2006 first-round pick (third overall) settled into their clubhouse for good.

“He’s a natural leader,” starter Jeremy Hellickson says. “Since he stepped into our clubhouse five years ago, even the older guys have looked up to him.”

Longoria is 27 and spends most days ahead in the count. The Rays extended his contract by six years and $100 million over the winter, making him one of just seven big leaguers to be signed through 2020. His girlfriend delivered the couple’s first child this spring. An accomplished cook, Longoria is a partner in a Tampa restaurant opening soon.

But he was only able to play in 74 games last year. An early-season oblique strain knocked him down to 133 games in 2011.

He is moving around well this spring. The hamstring seems strong. Rays manager Joe Maddon and Co. are taking extra caution with him. Maddon will pick spots to rest Longoria during the season.

“It’s definitely in the back of my mind,” Longoria admits. “It’s hard for it not to be.”

Bright side of that for the Rays: That’s based on last summer’s misery, not this spring’s limitations.

“I think I’m beyond it at this point, but I would be lying to you if I said it wasn’t in the back of my mind,” Longoria says. “It’s something where for a long time, it’s probably going to be there. Because even when you’re healthy, you don’t want to feel that again.

“You want to be as cautious as you can, and understand which situations call for going really hard and busting it, and when you can kind of be careful with it.

“It’s definitely part of the learning process. Playing baseball every day and trying to play 162 games. I think I’ve definitely learned from those experiences. It’s a balancing act. There’s a fine line.

“I want to go out and play the game hard every night. I want to set an example. I want guys to look at me and understand that I’m playing the game the right way. There’s a fine line between dogging it and being careful.”

Those words, that’s no small part of why the Rays sank their money and commitment into Longoria when the tradition here usually is to send a hearty farewell to guys when the money starts to swell. Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, James Shields … the list goes on. See ya.

The fact that a franchise that sadly still couldn’t draw flies if they left their dumpsters unemptied chose Longoria as its franchise player speaks volumes. Perhaps even more than the Reds committing to Joey Votto or the Brewers committing to Ryan Braun through 2020.

“I believe it’s possible that as you get a little older, you can get beyond the injury bugaboo,” Maddon says. “You learn to know the signs sooner. You learn how to work out differently.”

Essentially, that’s Longoria’s point when discussing situational “busting it” vs. throttling back.

He’s past the rehab part of his hamstring, and on to the daily maintenance. Likely, this will be a career-long thing. Hamstrings and obliques do not become more forgiving with age.

Nor do opposing pitchers, and certainly not fans when the dollar signs exceed $100 million and expectations soar.

Mostly, though … Tampa Bay? It’s easier to find a manatee in Tampa than it is to find a franchise player sticking with the Rays for a decade or more.

“I feel very lucky,” Longoria says. “I can’t say that I feel any pressure. I don’t feel any pressure to live up to the contract. Obviously there’s always pressure to win. That goes without saying. And that really is the most important thing for us.

“At the end of the day if I go out and have a great year individually and we don’t win, then they’re going to say, ‘He didn’t help the team win.’ But if you go out and have a so-so year, or a down year, and the team gets to the playoffs or the World Series, nobody looks at that.

“If you look at it that way, that’s the most important thing. My job is to be on field every day and help the team win.”

When he stepped into the Rays’ system in ’06, the winning part would have been unimaginable. Tampa Bay was flopping toward its ninth consecutive losing season.

Since he stepped onto the field as a rookie, the Rays have won two AL East titles in the past five years –- two more than the Red Sox –- and qualified for three playoff spots. Even in his limited time last summer, the Tampa Bay went 90-72 and just missed the playoffs.

No, he didn’t hit as well as he would have liked last season. In those 74 games –- only 49 at third base, and 25 as DH –- he hit .289 with 17 homers, 55 RBI and a .369 on-base percentage.

Yet look at what the Rays did with him in the lineup.

And envision what this October could look like if he plays in 140, 150 games.

“We’ve come so far,” Longoria says. “It’s really been a great experience for me to be a part of it. To come in, really, at the inception of where this franchise is now, and to see us continue to grow.”

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