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Longoria: Ready? Or not?

Someday, third base will belong to Evan Longoria. Will it be opening day?

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 24, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG - Evan Longoria thinks so.

He's certain he has the game, the attitude and the confidence to start at third base for the Rays on opening day. And why shouldn't he think that way?

All he has done is handle everything, and almost every pitch, thrown at him in 1 1/2 pro seasons - blazing through four minor-league levels, racking up 223 hits and 44 homers in 198 games - to get here in spring training with an opportunity, at age 22, to be a major-leaguer.

"I worked hard in the offseason, and I really do feel I have a legit chance of breaking with the club," Longoria said. "I'm not there yet, but I'm definitely ready."

The Rays don't know. Not yet anyway.

They expect him to be in the majors at some point this season and are confident that - eventually - he's going to be really good. "A real difference-maker," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. But they say they don't know if he's ready to be in the lineup when they open March 31 in Baltimore, or if it would be better - for his long-term success, of course - to wait.

It's the biggest decision of their thus far all-good spring, and it's what they'll spend most of the next month debating, determining and deciding.

"If you could unequivocally say he'd be able to hit the ground running on March 31, that's one thing," Friedman said. "If you say him going down and building up some confidence at the Triple-A level and continuing to make those adjustments puts him in a position where he knows unequivocally that he's ready for the next level, that's another thing."

So how will they know?

Friedman and manager Joe Maddon say they'll consider a series of factors beyond actual performance and results, everything from how Longoria carries himself and interacts in the clubhouse; his thought process at the plate and how he makes adjustments during, and between, at-bats; his preparation, work ethic and knowledge of the game; how he plays defense and does the "little" things. And they'll try to gauge other things more subjective such as how he'd handle the frustrations of what would be his first extended slump as a pro.

The more-telling exhibition games don't start until Friday, but thus far they are impressed. "His attitude and approach so far is exactly what we hoped for and exactly what we wanted to see," Friedman said.

Ask minor-league hitting coordinator Steve Livesey, and he seems to have little question that Longoria can handle it, just as he did promotions to Double A in 2006 and Triple A (in 2007) when Rays officials weren't totally sure he was ready. "He's responded to every challenge we've given him," Livesey said.

Ask around the clubhouse, and other players have no doubt Longoria is ready. "Hell, yes," B.J. Upton said. "Ready right d--- now."

Ask Longoria's closest friend and former Long Beach State teammate, Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki, and he wonders what has taken so long.

But you also have to ask Longoria, because one of the biggest issues is actually whether he feels comfortable being there. "As soon as you feel you belong on the field, you are okay," Tulowitzki said in Arizona. "You're playing against guys you grew up idolizing. You are in awe. Once that goes away and you realize you are one of the guys, it really helps."

Longoria admits he has his moments, usually when he's home and bored and his mind's racing, of slight doubt. But he thinks about the guys he played with in college and the minors who are now in the big leagues, sees the talent and work ethic it takes, and rests assured he belongs.

"It's easy to say, 'He's there so I can be there,' that kind of thing," Longoria said. "I feel pretty confident I can match up with them. ... I've got a good feeling coming in that I belong and that I can play at this level."

So what's going to happen?

There are some contractual-type benefits for the Rays to hold him back, though Friedman insists they are "really not a factor."

If Longoria, who is not on the 40-man roster, spends at least the first 12 days in the minors, he won't get credit for a full major-league season, delaying his free-agency eligibility a full year (from 2014 to 2015). If he spends about two months in the minors, he likely won't get early, or Super Two, eligibility for an extra year of arbitration, which could save the Rays millions, and perhaps tens of millions, over the next six years.

As for hints, as much as Rays officials talk about the confidence Longoria could gain from a couple of extra months in the minors, as often as they point out that he hasn't failed and they'd actually feel better if he had, how they regularly reference the way Kansas City's Alex Gordon struggled when starting 2007 in the majors and how Milwaukee's Ryan Braun starred after opening in the minors, how they just happened to trade for a perfect short-term starter at third in utility infielder Willy Aybar, it's reasonable to read the message between the lines that he isn't going to be on the roster.

But they insist the decision hasn't been made yet and will be solely on what's best for Longoria, that he's "on an island" and that his "development is king," no matter what concerns they might have. "I'm trying really hard to not have a gut feeling on Feb. 24," Friedman said, "trying to keep an open mind because it's a fluid situation with a lot of subjectivity to it."

Longoria understands the process (and how to play this part of the game, too) saying he "won't be disappointed" if he's sent down and that, honestly, his timetable is just to get to the majors sometime in 2008.

"I feel like I've earned my way into spring training, now all I can ask for is the opportunity to not just be here, but to make the club," Longoria said. "They've made it known they'll give me the at-bats this spring, they'll give me the innings to be able to prove that I'm ready. And that's perfect. That's what I want."

In other words, it's show time.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Evan almighty?

Five things to know about Evan Longoria:

- He was not drafted out of California's St. John Bosco High (which also produced Nomar Garciaparra) - "I wasn't good," Longoria said - and signed with Rio Hondo College in Whittier.

- He starred for two seasons at Long Beach State and as the third overall pick in 2006 is the highest selected player in the program's history.

- In 1 1/2 pro seasons, his teams were a combined 127-91 and he was in the playoffs both years. He has a career .304 average, 44 homers, 153 RBIs and a .934 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages), and was the 2007 Southern League MVP.

- In an extended 2007 season that covered 171 games (Double-A Montgomery, Triple-A Durham, International League playoffs, Arizona Fall League and Team USA), he hit .298 with 42 doubles, 33 homers and 115 RBIs.

- No, he's not related to Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria.