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02/26/12 6:41 PM EST

With Longoria, Rays may be best in Majors

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Rays manager Joe Maddon spent part of his Sunday morning watching Evan Longoria fielding grounders, making throws, moving smoothly here, there and everywhere.

"You can see there's no restriction at all," Maddon said. "He feels good. The fluidness is there. Right now, I'm seeing that athlete I saw a couple of years ago."

Longoria is arguably baseball's best third baseman, probably one of its five or six best all-around players and most marketable stars. After a year in which almost nothing came easy, he begins his fifth big league season in a good place both physically and mentally.

"I feel great," he said. "This year, I feel top to bottom really good. I'm excited to get back out there."

He's not the key to these Rays. They've got a very good, very deep rotation, one of baseball's best defenses and a manager with a magical touch for making the pieces fit. In attempting to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, they're no longer the Cinderella story of years past.

But if Longoria is really good, if he's as productive as he was in the second half of last season, the Rays might be baseball's best team. How's that for putting it all at one guy's locker?

No, it's never that simple, but it makes for a good narrative. Let's just say that Longoria at 26 is one of the game's resplendent talents, one who sells tickets and impacts winning.

"He plays third base better than anybody," left-hander David Price said. "I get to watch him every day, and the stuff he does for us, the presence he brings to the field every day, is amazing."

Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes. Longoria said it was great to have Carlos Pena back with the Rays because he's the vocal leader. Longoria's idea of leadership is to work hard and be productive.

"He's not necessarily a rah-rah guy," Rays general manager Andrew Friedman said. "But he works extremely hard. He cares as much about his defense as he does his offense. When young players come up and watch the way he goes about it, it really speaks to the emphasis we place on all aspects of the game. He really embodies what we preach."

Now about that 2011 season. He pulled a muscle in his left side in the second game and was sidelined for a month. As the season wore on, a chronic condition in his left foot made everything difficult.

"When an athlete's hurt, they can mask it as much as they want, but there's still something missing," Maddon said. "You could see the bounce in his step. He's feeling pretty good about himself, and I know he's feeling good about where we're at as a group. Listen, you look what he did after missing a month, that's pretty darn good. I just think more than anything he feels good right now."

After June 11, Longoria was still amazingly productive. In that period, his 86 RBIs led the Majors and his 27 home runs were the second most. He had a monstrous finish, hitting 13 homers in the final 41 games.

Finally, it was his game-winning home run on the last day of the regular season that nailed down a playoff berth and ended one of the most exciting days in baseball history. When his numbers were added up, he was still eighth in the American League in home runs (31) and walks (80). The Rays were 76-58 after his return to the lineup, putting another spectacular couple of lines on a resume with three All-Star appearances and two Gold Gloves.

"I'll tell you what, he saves our butt every day," Rays right-hander James Shields said. "It's amazing some of the plays he makes, and he makes 'em look so easy. If you were a young kid, you'd definitely want to watch the way he plays third base. It eases our mind on the mound to know we have that kind of defense behind us."

Longoria underwent offseason surgery to repair his left foot, and after that, began a training period that left him leaner and (he hopes) stronger.

"Obviously, to start off the year on the shelf for the first month and a half was tough," he said. "With that comes anxiety of getting back on the field. The first half was a learning process and a struggle for me to figure out what I needed to do to get right. Thankfully, I hit a little bit of my stride later in the season and at the right time."

While establishing himself as one of baseball's best players, he has also helped transform an entire franchise. When he made his Major League debut in 2008, the Rays had AVERAGED 97 losses a season in their 10 years of existence.

In four years since, they've averaged 92 victories, missed the playoffs once, and have become widely viewed as one of baseball's smartest front offices, one that does the most with the least.

When Friedman spoke to his players Sunday morning, he mentioned a winning culture, how the Rays now expect to win, and have become an attractive destination for free agents who want to win and have fun.

"It's been really, really neat to watch," Longoria said. "I'll just go back a little bit to 2006 when I was drafted. I really didn't know who the Rays were. Obviously, they were kind of a doormat of the AL East for their history. For me to be able to come up in 2008, and have that very special season, and to see us transform year-to-year has been fun."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.