The Tampa Bay Rays perennially find ways to be competitive in the big-boy division of the AL East even without the deep pockets of division rivals like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. However, as the division has continued to improve this offseason, the Rays won’t be so fortunate in 2013, unless Evan Longoria can avoid major injury this season.
Before last season, there was talk of Longoria being an MVP candidate. That chatter, of course, died down significantly when the slugging third baseman missed 85 games with a partially torn hamstring. Even in limited time, however, he showed just how valuable he was to Tampa Bay’s chances of winning.
When Longoria was on the field, the Rays went 47-27. Without him, they went just 41-44, proving his value in very a very stark sense. With him in the lineup, the Rays had a serious bat in the heart of their order and a Gold Glove caliber third baseman who steadied their infield defense. That dramatic split between with Longoria and without is no coincidence.
The 27-year old had minor surgery in November to repair his hamstring, and finally put the nagging injury behind him (hopefully). He’s vowed to be ready to go for Spring Training, and is motivated to return to the form that sent him to three straight seasons to start his career and earned him a pair of Gold Gloves.
The Rays should do everything in their power to get him back on the field and then keep him there, working with him to avoid excessive strain or major injury. The training staff will be monitoring Longoria extremely closely, to be sure, to make sure any dings don’t hurt into extended trips on the DL.
Having some help in the order to take pressure off his bat might help as well. Manager Joe Maddon seems to be leaning towards placing Luke Scott behind his slugger to give him protection in the lineup and ensure opposing pitching staffs don’t throw junk to Longoria all season long.
While the Yankees and Red Sox have shown the ability to go out and snatch up major talent in free agency, and the Toronto Blue Jays have shown a talent gathering ability of their own, Tampa Bay has to take care of the superstars they have. That means getting Evan Longoria healthy and keeping him that way, or they will get left behind in the AL East.