As they prepare in spring training for the regular season, the Blue Jays understandably have been focusing primarily on the titans of the American League East — the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

Down the road from the Jays’ camp in Dunedin, Fla., however, another division rival is making noise.

The Tampa Bay Rays, based in St. Petersburg, actually own MLB’s highest winning percentage in exhibition play. And, for an organization that literally has experienced nothing but losing seasons, this is big stuff.


“I feel like we’re finally strong enough to contend,” left-fielder Carl Crawford said after his team improved its Grapefruit League record to 14-4-1 yesterday with a 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. “I truthfully haven’t felt like this about our club before. We got some guys now who can do some damage.”

The most notable is the Rays’ new third baseman. No, not Eric Hinske, although the ex-Toronto and ex-Boston player did sign with the Rays as a free agent and hasn’t looked out of place back at third or at first in spring training.

The main man at third here, however, is the consensus favourite for rookie-of-the-year laurels in the AL. His name is Evan Longoria — no relation to the Desperate Housewives star, although he may be attracting as much attention as Eva Longoria these days.

Longoria leads the Rays in home runs with three, is batting about .330 and has been a vacuum cleaner at the hot corner. He’s a blue-chipper, scouts suspect, which makes it difficult to believe the 23-year-old may start this season in Triple A.

If Longoria opens the season with Tampa, he will likely be eligible for free agency after 2013. If he is in the minor leagues until late April, however, he can’t be a free agent until 2014.

Management will decide Longoria’s fate this week. Crawford is concerned that Longoria’s demotion could affect the Rays adversely.

“With him, I think we can compete with Boston, the Yankees and Toronto,” Crawford said. “Without him, I don’t know. You hate to think one player could deflate the whole team, but we think Evan’s a positive for us.”

And, when you’re the Tampa Bay Rays, you certainly need all the positives you can find.

Find my first MLB Report of 2008, incidentally, exclusively at

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