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05/20/08 11:20 PM ET

Mending Aybar's role could be in air

Injured third baseman may see playing time cut upon return

OAKLAND -- Third baseman Willy Aybar is on the mend, but his role with the Rays could become hazy thanks to the emergence of rookie Evan Longoria.

Aybar continues his rehab on a sore left hamstring in extended Spring Training and appears to be much better.

"He's a week to 10 days away," manager Joe Maddon said on Tuesday. "He's running like he isn't hurt any more. It sounds like he's on the right track."

Aybar, who missed last season for a variety of reasons with the Atlanta Braves, was on Tampa Bay's Opening Day roster and figured to be the everyday third baseman until Longoria was ready.

Aybar lasted seven games and was beginning to hit the ball well before going on the disabled list with his hamstring problem.

Thus the Evan Longoria era started a little ahead of schedule. He's going to make it difficult for Aybar to find consistent playing time upon his return.

Longoria, taken as the third overall pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, had been in the Rays' Spring Training camp as a non-roster player the past two seasons.

Maddon said Longoria was in the Rays' plans for this season at some point, which is why the team did not release him to play with the United States National Team managed by Davey Johnson.

Longoria showed the Rays he could handle adversity and remain focused on the big picture. Maddon thought that would be his biggest test.

"He's probably never struggled like that [7-for-50 stretch] in his life," Maddon said. "He's handled it well and he's on the verge of getting real toasty."

Longoria has also impressed the Rays with his defensive prowess and baseball instincts.

"I knew he was good, but I didn't know his defense was this good," Maddon said. "His backhand, going to his left ... on slow rollers he's fantastic and his arm is accurate. He's a baseball player."

Maddon knew Longoria was catching fire because he was "taking pitches better," meaning he's not guessing as much and is beginning to see pitches better in the sense he doesn't buckle his knees as much.

"He was looking for too many things," Maddon said. "He's narrowing his focus a little bit."

Good news for Longoria and the Rays, but not such good news for Aybar.

Rick Eymer is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.