Rays still feel like team to beat in AL East

The revamped Tampa Bay Rays have a new look, along with the same

expectations of staying on top of baseball’s toughest division.

The cost-conscious AL East champions slashed payroll by about 40

percent this winter, yet remain confident they’ll be able to hold

their own against the big-spending Boston Red Sox and New York

Yankees this season.

A talented young pitching rotation led by Cy Young Award

runner-up David Price is the biggest reason. Manager Joe Maddon

believes the team has a chance to be solid offensively, too, with

veterans Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez filling holes created by

the departures of Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena.

”I think we drip with intangibles,” said Maddon, who has

guided the Rays to two of the past three division titles with teams

that thrived on pitching, defense and speed.

An offseason of change – pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason

Bartlett were traded while the Rays also lost Crawford, Pena and

virtually the entire bullpen to free agency – has not altered the

formula for success.

”We’re not going to go out there and spend an exorbitant amount

of money on one or two free agents, but we get really good,

athletic young players and mix them with some nice veterans,”

Maddon said. ”But mainly we have to play our style of baseball.

… We have to believe in it. … That’s who we are. We’ll never

run away from it.”

Damon and Ramirez both are motivated to prove they can still be

productive players, with Damon settling into Crawford’s spot in

left field and Ramirez taking over as the designated hitter.

They are among six active players with at least 2,500 career

hits and are being counted on to provide leadership in the

clubhouse, too.

”I know I’ve got to be more of a leader at this point in my

career. I have no problem doing that,” said the 37-year-old Damon,

who is beginning his 17th season.

Ramirez, 38, is a 12-time All-Star who was slowed by injuries

while hitting .298 with nine homers and 42 RBIs in 90 games for the

Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox last season.

While Damon agreed to a $5.25 million, one-year contract that

could be worth more with incentives, Ramirez accepted a $2 million,

one-year deal – down from the $20 million he earned in 2010 – and

says he is motivated not only to help Tampa Bay get back to the

playoffs but to prove he’s still one of the game’s best

hitters.

”I just want to stay healthy. That’s my main course,” Ramirez

said. ”If I do that I think everything takes care of itself.”

But for all the talk about what Damon and Ramirez can add, the

Rays are still Evan Longoria’s team.

The three-time All-Star third baseman, who hit .294 with 22

homers and 104 RBIs last season, is excited about being sandwiched

between his new teammates in the batting order. He’s just as

excited about what he believes the Rays are capable of

accomplishing despite losing Crawford, the most accomplished player

in Tampa Bay’s relatively brief franchise history.

While conceding the defending division champions lost a lot,

Longoria looks at the starting rotation of Price, James Shields,

Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and rookie Jeremy Hellickson, as well as

an everyday lineup boasting young up and comers such as B.J. Upton,

Ben Zobrist and Reid Brignac, and sees no reason the Rays can’t

repeat.

”We’ve got the right guys,” Longoria said. ”It’s just a

matter of putting the pieces together that win.”

Maddon’s biggest concern is the bullpen.

The Rays lost All-Star closer Rafael Soriano, as well as Joaquin

Benoit, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler

and have rebuilt the unit around the lone holdover, long reliever

Andy Sonnanstine, and newcomers Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz and Joel

Peralta.

With no clear-cut closer on the roster, the manager likely will

handle that role by committee.

Maddon insisted he’s not worried, noting that when the Rays

broke camp a year ago, ”there’s no way you can tell me anyone

expected us” to have one of the top relief units in baseball.

”Bullpens are like that. They’re volatile. They pop up. They go

away,” Maddon said. ”I kind of enjoy the fact that people aren’t

expecting much out of us. We’ll see.”