ST. PETERSBURG -- Entering the 2008 season, the Rays have a chance to have their best corner infield in team history.
Yes, the team did have Wade Boggs at third and Fred McGriff at first when it first opened the doors in 1998. Boggs is in the Hall of Fame and McGriff is likely headed in that direction. And while both played well for the Rays, they had played their best baseball elsewhere before joining Tampa Bay.
If all goes well, the Rays could have the element most teams covet at both corner positions: Power.
Carlos Pena will again play first, and he proved he had the necessary power in 2007, when he hit 46 home runs. The big question leading up to Spring Training is whether Pena will be joined by top prospect Evan Longoria.
Longoria played at Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham in 2007 and hit .299 with 26 home runs and 95 RBIs in 136 games, including a .402 on-base percentage and a .520 slugging percentage.
At the end of the 2007 season, the Rays announced Longoria would know if he was going to make the team prior to the start of Spring Training. By operating in said fashion, Longoria would arrive in St. Petersburg without the pressure of trying to make the team. So that decision is forthcoming.
Rays manager Joe Maddon visited Longoria and had dinner with him during the Arizona Fall League. Maddon came away from the meeting calling Longoria "impressive."
"You can talk about his skills if you want," Maddon said. "This guy is a Major League-caliber person, and I think he's going to fit in well with the Major League clubhouse quickly. He gets it. He understands it."
Even though the thought of having power at both corners is enticing, Maddon said he would not interfere in the decision process regarding Longoria, rather he will go along with whatever the organization's developmental people feel is best. But not knowing whether Longoria will be there has not stopped Maddon from thinking about where Longoria might hit in the Rays' lineup.
"If Longoria is there, I think the No. 6 hole is covered," Maddon said. "I would not want to put a lot of pressure on him early. I could see him starting in the sixth or seventh hole."
Tampa Bay Rays
Regardless of whether Longoria leaves Spring Training as the Rays' third baseman or not, don't look for Akinori Iwamura to be at the hot corner in 2008. Last year's third baseman has spent his offseason working toward acquainting himself with a new position, second base, so the Rays don't want to unsettle him by moving him back and forth.
"We're pretty much committed to the fact Aki is going to go [to second]," Maddon said. "The other side of it is when we believe Evan is going to be ready to do his thing. If we feel it's good about bringing Evan up and doing it at that particular time [at the end of Spring Training], we shall. Otherwise, if we think he needs some more time, we don't want to bump Aki back and forth."
If Longoria does start the season at Durham, it's not likely he'll be there long. But the Rays would need to find an interim third baseman. Joel Guzman could be that player, or the organization could go outside to get a third baseman via trade or free agency. Guzman -- and not Cliff Floyd -- will also be looked at to be the backup first baseman.
Whether Longoria begins the season at Durham or St. Petersburg, he is close, which means the Rays are close to having a solid pair at the corners.
"Pena had a phenomenal year in 2007 and we expect him to come back with a great season this year as well," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations. "We feel the corner infield will be a strength of ours for many years to come when you couple that with Longoria's expected arrival and development."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.