- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. (AP) - The Tampa Bay Rays are counting on Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon to help them remain competitive in baseball’s toughest division.

The free-agent outfielders officially became the newest additions to the defending AL East champions on Tuesday, signing one-year contracts to fill a couple of holes on a roster depleted by the departure of several key players, including All-Star Carl Crawford and slugger Carlos Pena.

“We’re not going out there right now to just fill out a 162-game schedule,” manager Joe Maddon said during a news conference reuniting Ramirez and Damon, who were teammates in Boston from 2002-2005, helping the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series.

“Our goal is to repeat as division winners this year, and then moving on from there,” Maddon added. “These two guys definitely make us more solvent. There’s no question.”

Damon agreed to a $5.25 million deal that includes a chance to earn $750,000 in bonuses based on attendance.

Ramirez gets $2 million from the cost-conscious Rays _ well below the $20 million he made last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.

While Damon is 37 and Ramirez turns 39 in May, both feel they have plenty to contribute on a team that thrived on good young pitching and strong defense last season.

“Absolutely this team can win the American League East,” said Damon, who earned $8 million season while hitting .271 with eight homers and 51 RBIs with the Detroit Tigers.

“What I really like about this team is you have two guys that you’d really like to build any franchise around,” Damon said, referring to All-Stars David Price and Evan Longoria. “This team is bred to win right now.”

Both players said the chance to play closer to home _ Damon lives in nearby Orlando, and Ramirez resides in Pembroke Pines in South Florida _ played in the decision to join a team that has not adbandoned hope of continuing to compete with big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox for AL East supremacy.

Since clinching their second division title in three years last fall, the Rays have traded starting pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett and lost Crawford, Pena and relievers Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate and Chad Qualls through free agency.

The club still has work to do on rebuilding the bullpen. But adding Damon and Ramirez addressed the need for a left fielder and cleanup hitter.

“We wanted this to happen ever since my departure from Boston years ago,” said Damon, who played with the Yankees from 2006-2009, helping New York win its most recent world title.

“We always felt great about each other, about what kind of teammates we were and we know we can bring a lot of experience _ and playoff experience also _ to these guys,” he added. “I think that’s why this move is very intriguing. Manny’s ready to go, and so am I.”

Ramirez, who likely be used mostly as a designated hitter, said he’s trimmed 12 pounds from last year’s playing weight of 237 and is eager to prove he can still be a productive player.

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