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Rays have different feel, vibe heading into season

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Evan Longoria considered the 2013 Rays the closest-knit group he'd played with since joining the team, so what he said about this year's club caught everyone's attention.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Evan Longoria considered the 2013 Rays the closest-knit group he'd played with since joining the team, so what he said about this year's club caught everyone's attention.

"I'm getting a better vibe this year, to be honest with you," Longoria said. "We kind of have the same group, so we've been able to build upon what we started last year and the new guys have bought in early. And it seems like they have come in with the attitude and the idea that they're going to conform to the idea of being whatever it is we define as being a Ray and do it wholeheartedly. And I think that's made us closer already."

Being a Ray in the early years of the franchise meant being a "Devil Ray" and that moniker became synonymous with losing. Since 2008, when the team dropped "Devil" from the equation, being a Ray has been all about winning.

Since becoming the Rays, the team has compiled a 550-423 mark, which ranks as the Major League's second-best record behind the Yankees over that period. In addition, the Rays have been one of four teams during that span to reach the postseason four times. They have not had a losing season since 2007, and they have accrued 90-plus wins five times during the past six years.

While the rearview mirror shows a recent history of excellence that Longoria has been a huge part of, he noted that he's more excited about this year's team than he has been about any since reaching the Major Leagues in 2008.

"I think from top to bottom, we're going to be able to have a chance to win," Longoria said. "Not that we haven't in years past. I just think this year we have the right mix of guys to be able to go a long way."

Like Longoria, Rays manager Joe Maddon believes that the continuity that this year's team has should make the club better.

"It's nice," Maddon said. "I think part of it is when you're able to keep a lot of the guys together and you're not breaking in a whole bunch of other guys on an annual basis. But then again, when you do bring new folks in and they fit in seamlessly with what you're doing."

Maddon rattled off the names of newcomers such as Logan Forsythe and Heath Bell, citing the professionalism each has brought to the equation.

"All these guys, they fit in -- immediately," Maddon said. "It speaks to them, but also regarding our front office in bringing folks in and all the type of work we do to make sure everything matches up. It's pretty cool. I totally can understand what Longo was talking about."

Critical to the Rays' success since 2008 has been pitching and defense. And that will be the team's strong suit in '14.

David Price will again be at the top of the rotation, and the left-hander hopes to return to his 2012 form that earned him the American League Cy Young Award. Joining him will be Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi. So the rotation will be a formidable one and one that is capable of getting the game into the late innings where a seasoned bullpen can preserve the win.

Heading up the bullpen is Grant Balfour, whom the Rays signed to a two-year, $12 million deal to return to the team as the closer.

"It's great to have him at the backside, the success he's had," Maddon said. "He's been one of the more consistent pitchers in baseball the last several years. He's still in great shape. He's ready to roll. And the really interesting thing, it's like he never left.

"It's incredible how comfortable it is to be around him conversationally. You can see the maturity on his part. The fact he's done some good work and he knows he's pretty good right now. So there's a more subtle feeling about him, too. He definitely helps define the back side of what we're doing there and permits us to really utilize the other guys like we'd like to."

Setting up Balfour will be the likes of Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Bell and, eventually, Juan Carlos Oviedo, who got a late start after experiencing visa problems in his native Dominican Republic.

"On paper, it's got to be the best bullpen in the league," Peralta said. "If everybody performs the way that we should, we have a lot of arms that can do good here, that can pitch against anybody. ... It's a great bullpen."

Defensively, the Rays have four Gold Glove-caliber infielders in James Loney, Longoria, Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist. And bringing in Ryan Hanigan to shore up the catching will further strengthen the defense.

Finishing off the always important middle defense is Desmond Jennings, who covers a lot of ground in center field.

Offensively, Longoria is at the top of the class. With him in the lineup, the Rays always have a bat that opposing teams must respect. Surrounding him with the likes of Wil Myers, Zobrist, Loney and Jennings will only make him harder to avoid.

Of the Rays' offensive players, look for Jennings to be the key to ramping up this year's group. The key for Jennings will be his ability to get on base more often.

"I think the ability to accept his walks, too," Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "He's starting to realize how important him getting on base now isn't him getting a hit. If he walks, however the function of that is. It changes the game because of what he can do on the bases. So I think that's something that comes with maturation, something that comes with more at-bats. I think we're going to see him do that more."

With David DeJesus, Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez and Forsythe, the Rays will again have the available depth to allow Maddon to play matchups against opposing pitchers while losing nothing on defense.

In short, the 2014 Rays appear to be as complete a unit as there has been in "Rays" history.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for

Tampa Bay Rays