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Evan Longoria embraces leadership role, likes Rays chances of getting back to playoffs

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - Evan Longoria likes what the Tampa Bay Rays have done to try to make themselves better and is eager to do his part to help the team get back to the playoffs.

When the three-time All-Star third baseman arrived at spring training this week, one of his first orders of business was to approach executive vice-president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to congratulate him on an off-season of manoeuvring that kept much of last year's roster intact while also making some important additions.

Decisions to retain pitching ace David Price and outfielder David DeJesus, sign closer Grant Balfour, re-sign first baseman James Loney, trade for catcher Ryan Hanigan and pick up options on infielders Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar bolstered Longoria's confidence in what the Rays could be capable of achieving in 2014.

"From the outside looking in, he did probably one of his finest jobs with this team with the acquisitions that we've made and the people we were able to keep around," Longoria said.

Loney signed a $21 million, three-year contract — the biggest deal the Rays have given a free agent since principal owner Stuart Sternberg took control of the team after the 2005 season.

Price, who'll earn $14 million this year, remains on the roster after being the subject of trade talk this winter. Balfour received a $12 million, two-year last month, hiking the budget-conscious franchise's payroll to around $80 million.

"I thought being able to sign Loney to a multi-year deal, and keep not only his bat and glove, but his personality and what he brings to the clubhouse around, was a huge deal — something I thought was a huge step in the right direction for the organization," Longoria said, , noting it not only shows Tampa Bay is committed to winning now but in the future as well.

"I congratulated Andrew," Longoria added. "I'm really happy the way things look right now and excited to see how they shape up come the end of spring training."

The 28-year-old face of the franchise also is feeling more pressure to lead the Rays back to the World Series, where they lost to Philadelphia in five games in 2008.

Longoria hit .269 with 32 homers and 88 RBIs in a career-best 160 games last season, the first under the $100 million, 10-year contract he signed last winter.

"It seems like every year it gets a little tougher, believe it or not. Not physically, and not from a performance standpoint, but because I do feel a little more weight every year because I'm more of a veteran," Longoria said.

Not that he's complaining.

"It's never bad. It's just I feel like every year I have a little bit more responsibility to do certain things, to kind of weigh in on things that I wouldn't have in the past," he added. "It's not that I don't have peace of mind, I just feel a little bit more responsible every year."

In addition to helping the Rays earn an AL wild card berth, one of the things Longoria found most satisfying about 2013 was remaining healthy enough the stay in the lineup for an entire season after undergoing surgery on his left hamstring the previous winter.

"I'd really just like to do it again. Last year was a really fun year. Personally, like I've said again and again, if I can be on the field, I feel like I can have an impact whether it's from a production standpoint or just whatever I can bring from a leadership or a personal standpoint," Longoria said.

"Of course, there are things I'd love to accomplish," he added. "I'd like to hit for a higher batting average. But in reality, I just want to hit for a better batting average when there are runners on base, when there's a chance to a hit to directly impact the game."

Manager Joe Maddon has a deep appreciation for Longoria's leadership qualities, as well as the influence the player has in the clubhouse as well as on the field.

"You're never managed out of a crisis. You're always led out of one. ... There are a lot of guys who shy away from that. There's some people who don't want any part of that," Maddon said. "But he definitely understands his place in the game, and with us."

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