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No. 10 Rays: Evan Longoria enters his prime as Tampa fidgets with financial handcuffs

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Tampa Bay Rays.

MLB Springboards: No. 30 Astros | No. 29 Marlins | No. 28 Mets | No. 27 Rockies | No. 26 Twins | No. 25 Pirates | No. 24 Indians | No. 23 Mariners | No. 22 Padres | No. 21 Cubs | No. 20 Brewers | No. 19 Red Sox | No. 18 White Sox | No. 17 Royals | No. 16 Orioles | No. 15 Phillies | No. 14 Diamondbacks | No. 13 Athletics | No. 12 Rangers | No. 11 Yankees

2012 record: 90-72
Finish: Third place, AL East
2012 final payroll: $70.4 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $62 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 10th

Hashtags: #realfiscalcliff #price2.0 #smelltest #awilandaway #robin #tafka #foreclosedonshortstops #permutation #chopchopchop #tvpoverty

OFFSEASON ACTION

The perpetual motion of the Tampa Bay Rays – the wheeling, dealing, gap-filling, margin-squeezing, inefficiency-hunting ways that define their essence – spun with increasing rapidity this offseason. Never are the Rays at a stop sign. Rarely, however, do they push their RPMs toward the orange gauge the way they did this offseason.

They made one of the winter's biggest trades, signed three free agents, re-signed three more, lost their center fielder and gave out a $100 million extension to one franchise anchor and offered the other in potential deals. And in doing all of that, the Rays managed to keep their payroll among the five lowest in the game, a direct result of a fan base that refuses to support one of baseball's best teams for half a decade running as well as an embarrassing local television contract that gives them barely $15 million a year – less than 1/20th what the Dodgers will average when their new deal kicks in.

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The Rays' pricey extension for Evan Longoria might be the only big-ticket item on the team for years to come. (AP) …

They scrapped together enough money to sign Evan Longoria to that nine-figure deal, whereas David Price was dangled as trade bait and will, in all likelihood, find himself in a different uniform this time next year.

First, of course, the Rays must play out this season, and they'll do so with the returns of Kyle Farnsworth, Luke Scott and Joel Peralta as well as the additions of Kelly Johnson, James Loney, Roberto Hernandez (the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona) and, eventually, Wil Myers.

While the Longoria deal is the centerpiece of the offseason, trading James Shields – the franchise's winningest pitcher and the Robin of Tampa Bay's top-of-the-rotation dynamic duo – and Wade Davis for a package centered on Myers, one of the minor leagues' best hitters, is the move that will shape their 2013 fortunes the most. If Myers is a star, this is a historic trade. If Myers is simply good, the Rays will be plenty happy considering their rotation depth and Shields' approaching free agency made the trade so feasible.

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More than any team, the Rays have a reputation of dumping assets at their peak and scooping up those distressed. Adios, 31-year-old with almost 1,500 innings of mileage. Hola, Yunel Escobar, slurrer of gays, scooped up at the foreclosure auction to start at shortstop.

All of those moves made headlines. The Rays' signings of Jamey Wright and Juan Carlos Oviedo didn't. And yet it's those sorts of signings – bringing on Wright for pitching depth with a bullpen that needs it, and storing Oviedo (TAFKA Leo Nunez) for a year while he recovers from Tommy John surgery with a cheap 2014 option in hand – that makes the Rays the Rays. The big stuff, the small stuff – it's all worth sweating.

REALITY CHECK

Inside the Tampa Bay Rays' offices, they laugh. There is no better sort of humor than gallows to deal with the cruel reality that is the Rays'. An entire metropolitan area can't be moved to come watch the product of the game's best-run organization, and the excuse-making – whether it's traffic or the economy or the stadium's location or any number of other smell-test failures – has reached its nadir.

It's obvious, despite what Rays owner Stuart Sternberg still wants to believe, the Tampa-St. Pete area does not work for baseball. Hell, the whole state of Florida is a disaster once you include Boondoggle Park in Miami struggling to draw 10,000 in its second year.

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It's a long shot for David Price to remain a Ray in the long run. (AP)

Still, somehow Rays players ignore the college-sized crowd and truly play for manager Joe Maddon, who along with GM Andrew Friedman and president Matt Silverman make up a braintrust that embodies the first half of the word. Maddon's approach to players and people is smart, prioritized and efficient. Friedman spearheaded the offseason overhaul. Silverman tries his best to apply drops to the eyesore that is Tropicana Field.

And that leaves the Rays players to do the only thing they seem to know how: win games. Friedman has assembled a team with depth and flexibility. They could play Ben Zobrist at second base with Desmond Jennings in left and Matt Joyce in right. Or they could move Zobrist to right, Jennings to center and Joyce to left and plug in Kelly Johnson at second base. The permutations are endless, and Maddon uses them to his advantage.

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He doesn't have to guess nearly as much with his pitching staff. Price, the AL Cy Young winner, is better than ever. One scout who saw Matt Moore toward the end of the season suggested, "Is going to be every bit as good as Price – soon." And then there's the rest of their depth: Hernandez, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann and rookie Chris Archer. That is why they could trade Shields. That and get a potential replacement in the deal in Jake Odorizzi.

Odorizzi won't be Shields, not unless both teams underestimated him. He projects as a mid- to back-end starter, which is plenty productive and cheap for a team that always needs to marry those two things.

They keep trying and hoping things change. Sometimes it feels like a waiting game – that if you're patient long enough, a reward awaits at the end. It doesn't necessarily, not here, not with a stadium deal through 2027. Chop, chop, chop they go, swinging away at problems, doing what they can to remind themselves these are major league teams – and damn good ones – no matter what the crowd size may say.

SAVIOR

One of the truest signs of how much Evan Longoria loves playing for the Rays is wedding himself to a team for another decade. It's true: Longoria's contract runs through 2023, and it was his calculated gamble that the Rays' smartest people a) stay with the organization, too, and b) keep alive the culture of winning despite whatever budgetary restrictions there may be. Longoria is the leader in that cluhbhouse, no question, through voice and action. At 27, Longoria enters what for many players is their apex. A year among the sport's glitterati could give the Rays the boost necessary to transform league championships into the pursuit of world championships.

HAIKU

If a team wins and
Nobody watches, did it
Actually win?

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