March 28, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) Evan Longoria likes Tampa Bay's chances of escaping the AL East cellar and contending for a playoff berth.

The three-time All-Star third baseman who's coming off one of the most productive seasons of his career concedes he wasn't a big fan of every move the Rays made this offseason. Still, he's confident the budget-minded club is positioned to be more competitive in 2017.

''The more I think about it, I like where we are,'' the 31-year-old said, embracing the team's underdog status.

''In some of the years where we've been projected to be nothing, we've had some of our best years,'' Longoria added. ''And the years you've got a target on your back, or you're expected to play well or win 10 or 15 more games than the previous year, it's been tough.''

The Rays made the playoffs four of six seasons from 2008 to 2013 before gradually descending to the bottom of one of baseball's deepest divisions.

Last year's 68-94 finish was the club's worst since 2007, the final season the team was known as then-dreadful Devil Rays.

Gaining ground in a division that includes the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees and Orioles won't be easy after offseason trades sent pitcher Drew Smyly and second baseman Logan Forsythe packing, however manager Kevin Cash is excited about what has been added.

Catcher Wilson Ramos and outfielder Colby Rasmus were signed in free agency, while the deals involving Smyly Forsythe brought the club young outfielder Mallex Smith and starting pitching prospect Jose De Leon.

Regardless of what the newcomers bring, though, it likely won't be enough unless a pitching staff led by Chris Archer - a first-time All-Star in 2015 who wound up losing 19 games last season, re-emerges to lead the way back to contention.

Longoria, who wasn't happy about losing offensive catalyst and clubhouse presence Forsythe, thinks it can.

Even if outsiders aren't expecting a significant turnaround from the team.

''It's always good to have some expectations of winning. It drives the group, and you should come to the ball park expecting to win every day,'' Longoria said. ''But projections are what they are. They're just guesses.

''If everybody has the kind of year they are expected to have, and we stay healthy, I really like our chances.''


Some keys to the Rays re-establishing themselves as playoff contenders:

LEAD THE WAY: Archer didn't pitch as poorly a year ago as his 9-19 record suggests, however it's difficult to imagine the Rays being successful if he doesn't rebound. Alex Cobb is also being counted on to regain the form that made him one of the team's most consistent pitchers before Tommy John surgery sidelined him most of the past two seasons. Jake Odorizzi, Blake Snell and Matt Andriese complete the projected starting rotation.

NEW LOOK: Ramos and Rasmus potentially could add some thump to the middle of a lineup that's struggled to score runs, but both are coming off injuries that sidelined them much of last season. Ramos, as well as SS Matt Duffy (heal surgery), will begin start the season on the disabled list, with no clear timetable for being ready.

LONGO: Longoria batted .273 with 36 homers and 98 RBIs in 2016. The Rays will need another solid year from him to climb significantly in the standings. ''I don't think it's fair that you can ever book a guy for those types of numbers,'' Cash said. ''But if Longo can come up and just do what he's capable of we have a very special player, as the world of baseball knows.''

RISING STAR: Defensive standout Kevin Kiermaier was rewarded after winning his second straight AL Gold Glove, signing a six-year, $53.5 million contract extension during spring training. The center fielder leads the majors in defensive runs saved over the past two seasons. The Rays were 20-19 before a broken hand sidelined him for 48 games, including a stretch in which they lost 22 of 25 to tumble to last place.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: De Leon, acquired from the Dodgers in the deal that sent Forsythe to Los Angeles, is one of the game's top young pitching prospects. He'll start the season in the minors, however the Rays don't think he's far away from being able to help the big-league rotation.


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