PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Johnny Damon relishes the challenge of helping the Tampa Bay Rays get back to the playoffs.
The defending AL East champions signed him and Manny Ramirez this month to bolster an offense missing some key components from last season. They also are being counted on to provide veteran leadership in a young clubhouse.
Damon is confident they will deliver on and off the field, while increasing Tampa Bay’s chances of weathering dramatic offseason changes to remain competitive with Boston and the New York Yankees in baseball’s toughest division.
The 37-year-old left fielder batted .271 in 145 games with the Detroit Tigers last season. He thinks he can continue to be productive and believes outsiders are prematurely writing off the Rays’ prospects for success.
“There’s something about being counted out before the first pitch is thrown,” Damon said, adding that he and his new teammates are motivated to prove the Rays can win despite losing Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza and nearly the entire bullpen from last season.
A talented young lineup built around All-Star Evan Longoria, plus a deep pitching rotation led by David Price, are a basis for optimism.
Damon and Ramirez, coming off a disappointing season in which his production for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox was curtailed by injuries, add the type of experience that can be helpful in a pennant race.
The duo helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2004. Ramirez won a second ring with Boston in 2007, while Damon was part of a title team with the Yankees in 2009.
“We know what kind of team we have here. We have a lot of guys who are stepping into their primes right now. … We’re excited to prove the naysayer wrong and help develop a bunch of these kids,” said Damon, a two-time All-Star who’s a .287 career hitter in 15 seasons with Kansas City, Oakland, Boston, New York and Detroit.
“Everyone who starts off a year feels like they’re going to do well. I expect to do well. I’m in great shape to do well. But then again, that doesn’t matter. You have to go on the field, you have to produce. I know these guys are going to like me. I know they’re going to ask me for insight. I know they’re going to rally around me through good times and bad times. We just need to pull it together.”
Damon is one of just five players in major league history who’ve appeared in at least 140 games for 15 consecutive seasons. He’s sixth among active players in career hits with 2,571 — two behind Ramirez, who batted a combined .298 in 90 games for the Dodgers and White Sox in 2010.
Manager Joe Maddon has yet to determine where Damon fits into the batting order, but there’s a good chance he’ll be used some in the leadoff spot.
The manager already likes what he seen during workouts, and in the clubhouse, during the opening week of spring training.
“I just think he’s the kind of guy that really fits in well quickly, and I’m really looking forward to having him here,” Maddon said. “He’s exactly what we needed — that kind of player with that kind of experience and veteranship, and that could still play at a very high level.”
The Rays have won two of the past three AL East titles. Nearly half the roster has changed since they lost to Texas in the opening round of last season’s playoffs, so rebuilding team chemistry is one of Maddon’s priorities.
Damon doesn’t anticipate that being a problem.
“When you have a guy like Longoria here as the centerpiece of the team, I think it kind of makes everything easier. These guys got along great before … and we’re not here to cause any trouble. Everyone has the same common goal — to win,” Damon said.
“I’ve been able to talk to a few guys. … I feel like I’ve been their teammate for a while, and it’s only been a couple of weeks. These guys have come to accept me and embrace me, and it’s my job to go out there, prepare myself and go out and play the game (like) I know how. I think all the camaraderie and all that stuff is going to happen in time.”