Rays comfortable falling back into role as underdogs

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) A year after being a trendy preseason pick to contend for the World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays are back in a familiar role as underdogs.

”That’s good. … We like that,” three-time All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria said, noting the team has a history of flourishing most when little is expected from outside the organization.

”I just think it’s going to be a really good year,” the club’s career home run and RBIs leader said. ”We’ve got a young team, a bunch of guys eager to learn and get out there and win games. I’m really looking forward to that.”

Former manager Joe Maddon – and his often unconventional way of doing things – is gone.

So is Andrew Friedman, the young executive who was architect of the teams that made the playoffs four of the past seven seasons.

The roster has a much different look, too, with 10 key players from a year ago either traded or released this winter.

”The end result is a club that we have optimism about, a club that we’re excited about, that we think can compete for a playoff spot. And, that’s what we want,” team president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said.

”Every year, we want to come into camp believing our team can play meaningful games in September and have a chance to go to the playoffs, and even beyond,” Silverman added. ”We have that – and at the same time, we’ve reloaded our minor league system, added some players who impact us this year, might impact us in the future, and we’re better off because of that.”

Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, catcher Rene Rivera, outfielder Steven Souza Jr., and pitchers Kevin Jepsen, Ernesto Frieri and Burch Smith are offseason acquisitions who could figure in the team’s success – or failure.

Smith and two other young starters – Matt Andriese and Nathan Karns – figure to begin the season in the rotation because of injuries to Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Matt Moore.

The hope is the rest of the projected rotation, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, can help the Rays stay afloat until they can get back to full strength.

”If you’ve got starting pitching, you’ve got a leg up on going into the season,” rookie manager Kevin Cash said. ”We’re very fortunate with the pitchers we have – starters and relievers.”

Cobb, sidelined by a forearm strain during spring training, believes the team will thrive as underdogs.

”We’re not going to get bullied. A lot of people are picking us at the bottom, and we’re going to embrace that and have each other’s backs,” the right-hander said.

”Any time anybody calls you out in your profession and makes you feel like you’re not as good as you know you are, there’s always something to prove,” Cobb said. ”I don’t feel like we need to have extra motivation. It’s just going to be that much sweeter when we go out there and perform well.”

A look at the keys to the Rays’ season:

WHO WILL LEAD?: Pitching and defense were staples during six consecutive winning seasons that produced four playoff berths and one trip to the World Series. The Rays slipped to 77-85 a year ago, their first losing record since 2007. They’re banking on Cash, who has no previous managerial experience, being the right fit to restore winning ways. At 37, he’s the youngest current manager or head coach in the four major professional sports.

BETTER LONGO: Longoria played in every game in 2014 for the first time in his career, however he hit a disappointing .253 with 22 homers and 91 RBIs. He’s moving into the cleanup spot after batting third most of his career, and knows he has to be more consistent if the Rays – last in the AL in runs scored a year ago – are going to have a chance to be better offensively.

BEHIND THE PLATE: Catcher Ryan Hanigan was traded and backup Jose Molina was released this winter. The three-team deal that sent Wil Myers to San Diego and brought Souza to Tampa Bay from Washington, also landed Rivera from the Padres.

The Rays believe he’s an upgrade defensively, as well as offensively.

Rivera posted career highs with a .252 batting average, 11 homers and 44 RBI’s in 103 games last season. Still, the 31-year-old catcher stresses his job is to provide solid direction behind the plate.

”I want to help my pitching staff first. I think that’s what the game is all about. If you pitch well, you’re going to win some games,” Rivera said. ”If I get a hit here, a hit there and help us win some games, that’s even better.”