Having Longoria back should improve defense

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Last season the Rays earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first team since the 1945 Washington Senators to lead the American League in ERA (3.19) and finish last in fielding (114 errors). Making that fact tougher to swallow was the fact the Rays finished first in the AL in fielding in 2011.

Rays manager Joe Maddon believes much of the problem had to do with losing Gold Glove third baseman Evan Longoria for 85 games.

"The argument was made that we were moving people to different spots and that's something we always do and we've done successfully without guys making mistakes," Maddon said. "Last year, once Longo was out, we started doing what we thought would be normal and OK, but it didn't work out that way. Guys had difficult defensive years. Had Longo been [at third base], guys would not have been stretched to play there as often as they did.

"And I just think maybe the thought of having to cover for him for so long really was difficult. Everyday players are everyday players for a reason. And guys who are backup players, there's a reason for that also. The everyday player has a unique ability both physically and mentally to handle the grind on a daily basis and is probably better able to handle failure better. I think that's the real key."

Typical of Maddon, he found a silver lining in relation to the Rays' fielding.

"Moving forward, hopefully the same situation doesn't occur," Maddon said. "But if it did occur, hopefully we're covered depth-wise to where we can fill those spots in a better defensive way than we did last year."

Maddon believes this year's team has the potential to be the best fielding Rays team since his arrival prior to the 2006 season.

"I think it can be the [best] ever with good health," said Maddon, noting that such a compliment was high praise based on the high bar the 2008 club set with standout defenders Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and Carlos Pena. "That was pretty good. And this is right there with the guys that are out there right now. If we keep them on the field you're going to see some fantastic defense out there this year."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.