PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Plenty of youngsters in Rays camp are capable of putting a smile on manager Joe Maddon's face -- they are the future, you know. Youth aside, Maddon sounded most excited about one of his "grizzled" veterans: Evan Longoria.
"[Longoria is] walking around with a real smile and a bounce," Maddon said. "You know, normally when a guy does that he's feeling pretty good. I didn't see any kind of negative body language or facial expressions."
You see, as far as the Rays are concerned, Longoria, at age 27, is The Man. His health is tantamount to the success of the team, which explained Maddon's feeling about seeing Longoria bouncing about the clubhouse at Charlotte Sports Park.
Unlike a certain Hall of Famer who once touted himself "the straw that stirs the drink," Longoria doesn't have to toot his own horn. Everybody in the Rays' clubhouse is more than happy to talk about how important their All-Star third baseman -- and leader -- is to the team.
"He doesn't even have to be hitting well to improve our lineup," said David Price, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner. "His name being in the lineup, the pitcher knows when he's on deck, when he's in the hole, when he's due up fifth in that inning. They know where Longo is at all times. They probably know where he's sitting in the dugout.
"So it's a good thing to have him in the lineup. It gives everybody else a lot more stuff to hit, because nobody wants Evan Longoria to beat them. You know which guy on each team that you don't want to beat you. You're going to make somebody else beat you. And for us, that's Evan Longoria. It's fun to watch when he's in the lineup how different everything is."
Longoria played only 74 games last season due to a partially torn left hamstring. The Rays posted a 47-27 record in those games, and went 43-45 when he did not play. Longoria hit .289 with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs, and he ended the season by reminding Rays fans just how good he is when he homered three times in the season finale against the Orioles.
"I think there's no greater proof to how important Evan Longoria is to us than last year," said Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "Keeping him on the field is extremely important."
To that end, Longoria had minor surgery on his hamstring on Nov. 21, and the results have been encouraging. Longoria noted that he initially had some reluctance about the surgery, but two weeks after he "was feeling like a new man."
Shortly after the surgery, Longoria signed a healthy contract extension that could keep him with the team through the 2023 season. Now the Rays are faced with laying the groundwork for 2013 and how they can keep their best player on the field.
"He's going to do whatever he can to stay on the field," Friedman said. "That, coupled with how good our trainers are, I think gives us a great chance to be able to do that. Joe is great at communicating with [head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield] in terms of how guys are doing. I'm sure we'll be a little more proactive in terms of giving him days.
"He kind of prides himself on being an ironman and going out and playing every single day, and it's finding those spots. …We'll monitor how he's feeling, how he's doing, where we are, all those various things."
As good as Longoria feels on Feb. 15, he's resigned to the fact the Rays will likely handle him with kid gloves throughout the season.
"If I have to take a day off here or there to not go on the DL, to not have to deal with that kind of stress or worry, I'll do it," Longoria said. "To try to avoid the DL is going to be the biggest thing for me."
While Longoria understands the precariousness of his situation, he'd like to put any questions about his health in the rearview mirror.
"I'm 27 years old," Longoria said. "It's getting to the point [where] I shouldn't have to take these days off. I'm still young. That's the last thing on my mind, having to worry about taking days off. I can do that eight years from now."
Price put Longoria's health in perspective for the coming season when asked about the importance of Longoria staying healthy.
"It's very important for us," Price said. "We've lost some key guys over the offseason. We need a big year from Longo. He knows that and we all know it in here. And it's not only a big year. We need him to be healthy. And if he can be healthy, that's all we need."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.