AP Sports Writer
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- The budget-conscious Tampa Bay Rays relish the challenge of finding ways to remain competitive in the rugged AL East.
Three playoff berths and one trip to the World Series over the past five seasons speak to the type of job manager Joe Maddon and executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman have done despite operating within the constraints of one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.
That's not easy while playing nearly half your games against the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox -- teams with much deeper pockets.
"In our opinion, it's the toughest division in all of professional sports," said Friedman, who faced the task of replacing several key players this winter while the Blue Jays were spending generously to improve a roster that could be poised to battle to Rays, Yankees and Orioles for supremacy in the East.
"You can debate who's going to be first through fifth, but I think there's a very legitimate argument that's there's going to be five teams who win 81 or more games," Friedman said.
Despite making a huge commitment by signing star third baseman Evan Longoria to a $136.6 million, 10-year deal that added six seasons and $100 million to the slugger's contract, the Rays will start this season with a payroll of just over $60 million -- a meager number that owner Stuart Sternberg says is still above the team's means, considering Tampa Bay ranked last in home attendance in 2012.
Nevertheless, Friedman made several moves that he and Maddon are confident will help the Rays withstand the loss of pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis, outfielder B.J. Upton and first baseman Carlos Pena and return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus.
James Loney was signed as a replacement for Pena, Desmond Jennings shifts from left to center field to make up for the loss of Upton defensively, and one the best young pitching rotations in baseball -- led by AL Cy Young Award winner David Price -- figures to keep Tampa Bay near the top of the standings.
Maddon thinks the addition of shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Kelly Johnson will improve the middle of the infield defensively. Plus, the Rays are confident the jewel they got in the big trade with Kansas City, young outfielder Wil Myers, will soon be in the majors in a big way.
"Andrew understands the ramifications of running a payroll well above our means -- what it means to the future, and what it means relative to what we've done in the past," Sternberg said during his annual visit to spring training. "But obviously, if there's a move to be made that we feel significantly improves the team and puts us in a position play September baseball that's meaningful, then we're going to do everything we can to make that happen."
Price went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA a year ago and will be counted on even more with Shields, the franchise's career leader in wins, starts and innings pitched, now in Kansas City. He has plenty of help, though, with right-handers Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb and lefty Matt Moore eager to take some of the burden off the ace of the staff.
Not that Maddon is looking for anyone to carry more than his fair share of the load.
"I'm not a big believer in stepping up. I'm not a believer in that phrase. I'm more a believer in a guy's natural maturation, ascending to the next level and become a starting pitcher who's able to pick up 20 or 25 more innings this season," Maddon said. "I don't want them to think they have to do great. Just be good. Be yourself. I don't think that's a reach with any of these guys."
A solid bullpen is anchored by Fernando Rodney, who posted a club-record and career-high 48 saves in 50 opportunities while setting a major league record for a reliever working a minimum of 50 innings with a 0.60 ERA last season. After helping the Dominican Republican sweep through the World Baseball Classic this year, the 36-year-old closer seems poised to have another good season.
"It's going to be nearly impossible to repeat that, but I think he can be pretty close," Maddon said.
Just as important will be keeping Longoria in the lineup.
The three-time All-Star was limited by a partially torn left hamstring to just 74 games last season. The Rays struggled offensively and defensively in his absence, going 47-27 with their star in the starting lineup, compared to 41-44 without him.
Maddon hopes to keep Longoria fresh by giving him occasional days off and also utilizing him periodically as the designated hitter.
"Our goal definitely is not to be watching everybody else play at the end of the year," the manager said, adding that keeping Longoria healthy will be one of the keys to having a shot at playing deep into October.
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