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Rays prove they want to win again

PORT CHARLOTTE

The easiest thing to do during the offseason, Andrew Friedman said Friday afternoon, was nothing.

Re-sign Rocco Baldelli and Eric Hinske. Keep Edwin Jackson in the rotation. Say no thanks to the free agents looking for new homes.

“But that’s not what we wanted to do,” said Friedman, the Rays vice president of baseball.

The Tampa Bay Rays, who open their first spring training in Port Charlotte today, won the American League East and the American League pennant last season. They fell three wins shy of winning the World Series.

The Rays, players and management, feel there is some unfinished business.

Those rainy, cold nights in Philadelphia were not the finest hours for the team that proved you can win with pitching, defense and a small payroll. So the Rays chased some relief pitching and added outfield defense and filled a major need in the batting order by signing free agent Pat Burrell to a two-year, $16million deal.

Burrell, who will make the transition from a so-so left fielder to a full-time designated hitter this season, is capable of giving the Rays 30 home runs and 100 RBIs a season if he stays on form. If not, his contract won’t break the budget.

“He can bring us 20-plus home runs, and any time you can add that to your lineup, it’s big,” center fielder B.J. Upton said. “Especially when you add it to the speed we’ve got and the guys we’ve already got here.”

If anything, signing Burrell sent a message within the clubhouse that the Rays are aiming to finish what they started last year.

“I think it’s awesome,” third baseman Evan Longoria said. “It proves, definitely, that we’re trying to be a contender in a league where that’s very tough to do, especially with the two, three, four big-market teams we have in this league. But it definitely does show a step forward for the organization as far as the money they’re going to spend and what they’re going to do to try to make this a winning franchise.”

The fact is, the Rays had to do something. The Yankees opened the vault and the Red Sox added some parts. The American League East will not get any easier.

“I’m not really concerned about all that,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s all about what the Rays did.”

The payroll moved above $60 million this season, an increase of $20 million from last season and pretty high-altitude for the Rays.

They still have some needs. Closer Troy Percival will remain a question until he proves he’s healthy.

Do they let David Price begin the season at the major league level? Or do they send him to Triple-A as they did with Longoria last season?

Unlike past seasons, actually, unlike the first 11 springs in the team’s history, the Rays have few questions to answer in the ensuing weeks before the season starts in April.

The biggest question — Can they do it again? — won’t be answered for several months.

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