ST. PETERSBURG -- Not since the 2009 season have the Rays headed to Spring Training with a set infield like the one they'll have when they open camp this February in Port Charlotte, Fla.
The Rays were coming off an amazing season when they reported to camp in 2009. They had reached the World Series and appeared to have a good chance to head back with an infield that consisted of Evan Longoria at third, Jason Bartlett at shortstop, Akinori Iwamura at second and Carlos Pena at first.
Alas, the 2009 group experienced its fair share of hard luck. Iwamura got hurt and played in just 69 games. Pena and Bartlett also got dinged up, playing in 135 and 137 games, respectively. Only Longoria exceeded 150 games (157).
Flash forward to this season, when Tampa Bay will have Longoria at third, Yunel Escobar at shortstop, Ben Zobrist at second and James Loney at first.
Like the 2009 Rays infield that could hit and field, this year's group does as well. And based on last season's results, they appear more durable. Everyone in the group played in more than 150 games in 2013. So it is not a stretch to suggest this is the best infield Tampa Bay has ever put together.
Each of the four was a finalist for the American League Rawlings Gold Glove Award at their respective position. Though none of them won, the group feels pretty good about what it can do with the leather.
"Going back to the same infield, it's going to be fun," said Loney after signing a three-year, $21 million deal to remain with the Rays. "Those guys are great. They take pride in their defense and all the work that they do."
Loney seemed to pull the whole group together in 2013, so having him remain with the club should be a key toward extending the group's excellence this season.
"He's probably the best [first baseman] I've played with as far as total package," Longoria said last season. "Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman, both great defenders, and both, obviously at times, showed how good of hitters they could be. But I think [Loney's] calming influence, the way he plays the game, the way he cares about the game, just everything in general -- to take nothing away from those other guys -- but he is probably the best total package I've played with over there at first."
Longoria remains the team's best position player. With him on the field, the Rays' chances of winning are significantly greater than if he is not. Flash back to 2012, when Longoria played in just 74 games due to a partially torn left hamstring. Tampa Bay posted a 47-27 record in those games and went 43-45 when he did not play.
In 2013, on the surgically repaired hamstring, Longoria played in 160 regular-season games. He is a tough out, can hit for power, is a team leader, plays Gold Glove defense, and he's a winner. If Longoria has another healthy season, the Rays can expect great things from him as he enters the prime phase of his career.
Escobar proved to be a steal when he took over at shortstop last season and stabilized the position with steady plays -- and off-the-charts highlights as well. In addition, he was no slouch on offense, and he never became a discipline problem.
Escobar has all the tools to be a great player. He is in the last year of his contract with Tampa Bay, which should add some incentive to his game, too.
And Zobrist ...
Well, what can one expect from the Rays' original super utility player, who has settled into second base? As manager Joe Maddon likes to say about Zobrist: "He has no chrome."
In other words, Zobrist is not flashy. He gets his job done every day -- in the field and at bat.
If any questions exist regarding the infield, they concern the extras.
The Rays covet players who can play multiple positions. By having these players on the roster, Maddon can employ favorable matchups most nights depending on who is pitching for the opposing team.
Sean Rodriguez and newly acquired Logan Forsythe should fill that role for the most part. Non-roster invitee Jayson Nix and perhaps even Ray Olmedo could also factor into the mix, particularly if Tampa Bay takes an extra infielder given the absence of a true designated hitter.
If healthy, the Rays will have one of the strongest infields in baseball in 2014.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com.