Rays believe they are good enough to win it all

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) The Tampa Bay Rays feel they have everything it takes to win the World Series and aren’t afraid to say it.

The budget-minded franchise that’s played into October four out of the past six seasons boosted payroll instead of cutting back this winter in hopes of making another strong run for the playoffs.

”The goal is to be the team that plays the last game of the year and win,” third baseman Evan Longoria said.

”I felt like we were really close to breaking through last year,” the three-time AL All-Star added. ”And with the team that we have this year, I’m really excited to go out and try to prove to ourselves that we are good enough to do that.”

The Rays won 92 games a year ago, including a Game 163 tie-breaker to claim a wild-card spot, and have compiled the second-best record in baseball over the past six seasons.

That’s not enough for manager Joe Maddon and a hungry collection of players who reported to spring training feeling as if there’s unfinished business to tend to after losing to eventual World Series champion Boston in the AL division round.

”I love that our guys feel and think that way. I think it’s great,” Maddon said.

”You’ll hear that rhetoric in a lot of clubhouses, whether it’s baseball, football or basketball, but you’ve got to back it up. You have to really believe it. Not just say it,” he said. ”Some groups say it because they’re supposed to say it. Some groups say it because they believe it. Our guys believe it.”

That confidence was bolstered by the Rays’ ability to keep most of the key components from last year’s roster together, including lefty David Price, who anchors one of baseball’s deepest pitching rotations.

Price and just about everybody else expected the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner to be traded, however the Rays wound up giving him a $14 million one-year deal, in addition to re-signing first baseman James Loney and landing free agent closer Grant Balfour in moves that represent a big chunk of a club-record payroll of around $80 million.

Andrew Friedman, the team’s vice president of baseball operations, also traded for catcher Ryan Hanigan and infielder Logan Forsythe to give Maddon additional flexibility filling out a batting order around Longoria and 2013 AL rookie of the year Wil Myers.

”Talent can’t win every game for you, but it’s a good start,” said Loney, who signed a three-year, $21 million deal – largest since Tampa Bay has given to a free agent since Stuart Sternberg became principal owner.

”If we can stay healthy, if we can do the things we’re capable of doing,” second baseman Ben Zobrist add, ”we certainly have as good or better chance than any other team in the league to win it all.”

Five things to know about the Rays as they pursue another playoff berth:

PITCHING DRIVES THE BUGGY: Lefty Matt Moore won 17 games a year ago, and he’s only Tampa Bay’s third-best pitcher behind Price and right-hander Alex Cobb, who may have been the team’s most consistent starter in 2013, when he was 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA. Young arm Chris Archer is the No. 4 starter, and rookie Jake Odorizzi will begin the season in the fifth starter’s spot, filling in for the injured Jeremy Hellickson.

HEALTHY LONGO: A healthy Longoria makes a difference. This time a year ago, he was coming off offseason surgery on his left hamstring and the Rays were cautiously optimistic the procedure would help him stay in the lineup for an entire season. Mission accomplished. Although he was slowed a bit by plantar fasciitis in his right foot, the slugger had 32 homers and 88 RBIs in a career-high 160 games.

SHUT `EM DOWN: Balfour and Heath Bell have joined the bullpen. Balfour converted 62 of 67 save opportunities with Oakland over the last two seasons. On nights when he’s not available, Bell could be used in the closer’s role.

AVOIDING THE SOPHOMORE JINX: Myers hit .293 with 23 doubles, 13 homers and 53 RBIs in 88 games a year ago, and the Rays figure to benefit from having him batting behind Longoria for an entire season. Maddon has challenged the 23-year-old to become a better defensive player, and Longoria believes the budding young star has the attitude and work ethic necessary to enjoy continued success.

”I think Wil proved last year that he was the rookie of the year. He was very deserving of that,” Longoria said. ”As I learned over the course of the years, you only get better if you dedicate yourself. He’s definitely talented enough. And I know he’s dedicated to getting better. I’m excited to see what he’s going to do this year.”

EAT LAST: It’s the Rays’ mantra for 2014. Inspired by the book ”Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t” that Longoria read during the winter. When he told Maddon about the book, the manager incorporated the theme into his camp-opening address, using it to stress that the ultimate goal is to play the last game of the season – and win.