ST. PETERSBURG -- Evan Longoria stepped from a Tropicana Field elevator in late November. He wore a natty suit and walked with a slight limp.
The Rays' All-Star third baseman carried with him news. First, he'd recently undergone a procedure known as a debridement to his left hamstring. Next, Tampa Bay had extended his contract by six years and $100 million.
No doubt the Rays were confident that the surgery repaired the injury, which cost Longoria much of the 2012 season. Otherwise, they would not have backed up a Brink's truck to Longoria's doorstep.
Understandably, the Rays are bullish on Longoria's future, because, as they found out in 2012, without him, they are an average team. But with him, they can be great.
Longoria is that good.
Longoria played in only 74 games last season due to a partially torn left hamstring. The Rays posted a 47-27 record with him in the lineup. Without him, they went 43-45. Longoria hit .289 with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs, and he ended the season by reminding Tampa Bay fans about just how good he is by hitting three homers in the season finale against Baltimore.
"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 the surgery to clean up the scar tissue on his left hamstring, but that surgery did not take place until some serious deliberating by all parties involved.
"It was something we started talking about from probably around mid-September on last year," Longoria said. "We had been going back and forth and kind of consulting outside doctors and our own doctors and putting heads together and trying to figure out what was going to be the best course of action. And ultimately, there was no doubt in anybody's mind that it was the best thing to do -- and it was. It's been such a tremendous help."
Thus far, the results have been encouraging.
"I feel great," Longoria said. "Hopefully, I don't feel anything and I can go the whole year without having to say, 'I'm a little bit sore today' or whatever."
One thing is for certain -- if Longoria is on the field, Joe Maddon will be a much smarter manager.
"The manager's intelligence level is directly tied to his players at all moments," Maddon said. "And having him play on a more consistent basis would make any manager smarter. That and a good bullpen, I think, really increase a manager's IQ. There's no doubt, him playing more often makes us all look better."
Everybody in Tampa Bay's clubhouse is more than happy to talk about how important Longoria is to the team, including reigning American League Cy Young Award winner David Price.
"He doesn't even have to be hitting well to improve our lineup," Price said. "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 [the] 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."
Keeping Longoria on the field this season could be up to the star third baseman more than at any previous point. Being in tune to his body and less reactive to a desire to always be on the field will be critical.
"I think that sometimes one of my pitfalls is not listening to my body as much as I should," Longoria said. "I've just worried about playing the game hard. I think that's been a little bit of an issue for me, just wanting to be out on the field, just wanting to play every day. And maybe I have to be a little more honest. I think now it's much better. I really feel great, and I think I'm going to be a little more honest with myself."
Maddon believes that Longoria has had a chance to learn how to listen to his body and adjust accordingly.
"As you get older, many times you'll see younger players prone to injury early on in the careers get beyond that," Maddon said. "Maybe their bodies get stronger; they get used to the grind. Maybe they find the right offseason technique. ... They find a better way of keeping that particular body part more friendly and less resistant, all of those things. Then as a guy gets older, he understands himself better and is better able to prepare and those little things stop popping up."
Longoria has experienced a whirlwind of major events in his life since the end of the 2012 season: The surgery, the contract extension and he became a father when he and his girlfriend, Jaime Edmondson, had a daughter, Elle Leona. All of those factors should serve to improve Longoria -- even the money, according Maddon.
Maddon has always talked about the five levels of being a Major Leaguer, ranging from just happy to be in the Major Leagues at Level 1 to the evolved nature of Level 5.
"For the most part, I think [the money] truly puts him into that Category 5 person -- all they want to do is win," Maddon said. "They've gone through all the other stages of this game. And now they can really focus on one thing.
"The attempt to make a lot of money is gone, and now it's just about winning only. I think that's what happens most of the time. You get past, 'I belong here,' then you want to make some dough, and they do. Now, they can show up at the ballpark and there's only one agenda -- winning a World Series. So, for the most part, I think that the guys who really aspire to get to that point, that's when they become the best teammate they can become. They want to win on a daily basis."
And the Rays should win on a daily basis, just as long as Longoria remains on the field.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less