The Rays’ Five Greatest Hitters
Carlos Pena (2007-10, 2012)
The low-average, high-powered and well-traveled (five teams in his first six years) Pena was forgotten bench material by the time he’d been invited to spring training by Tampa Bay in 2007, on the sliver of a chance he could catch on; he was destined for the minors when, just a day before camp broke, an injury to Greg Norton opened up a spot on the roster for him. Pena went on to thank the Devil Rays with a thundering season, setting the pace for a productive four-year reign in St. Petersburg.
Pena startled the baseball world in that first season with the Devil Rays, setting career highs and numerous franchise marks which still remain, including a .282 average, 46 home runs, 121 runs batted in, 99 runs and 103 walks. For his efforts, he won the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. When the Rays followed suit a year later and broke out to an unexpected AL pennant, Pena remained potent at the plate despite a batting average that descended to .247; his 31 homers, 102 RBIs and 96 walks helped placed him, for the second straight year, among the top ten vote-getters in the AL MVP tally. Defensively, Pena also became the first player in franchise annals to win a Gold Glove for his work at first base. In the postseason to follow, Pena starred for the Rays in their seven-game ALCS triumph over Boston, hitting three homers.
In 2009, Pena made his first All-Star Game appearance and led the AL with 39 homers in early September when he suffered a broken finger; he missed the rest of the season but still managed to keep a share of the home run title with New York’s Mark Teixeira, who caught up. But his average continued to slip, down to .227—and the next year it got worse, as Pena hit an embarrassing .196 despite 28 homers and 84 RBIs. A free agent, the Rays made no attempt to re-sign him and he ended up with the Chicago Cubs—but brought him back for 2012, where he disappointed anew with yet another sub-.200 season (at .197) and decreased power numbers. Still, Pena has turned a lackluster .230 career mark with the Rays into a respectable .360 on-base percentage.
Evan Longoria (2008-present)
The California native was at first known for his near-namesake connection with actress Eva Longoria, a hot TV property at the time (This Great Game once referred to him as a “Desperate Prospect”). Now he’s better known as the glue that keeps the Rays together—offensively, defensively and in the clubhouse.
Longoria’s arrival coincided with the Rays’ sudden and long-overdue ascent to contender status in 2008; he was named to his first All-Star Game as a rookie (earning a celebratory bottle of champagne from Eva), won Rookie of the Year honors with 27 home runs and 85 RBIs in just 122 games, and belted six homers in the first two postseason series before flopping in the World Series with just one hit (and nine strikeouts) in 20 at-bats as Philadelphia fans mocked him with, yes, chants of “Eva!”
The Rays obviously knew what kind of talent they had with Longoria, signing him to an extension through 2016 six days after his major league debut. So far, they haven’t been disappointed. Longoria has parlayed his rookie success into a string of productive campaigns; in his first four seasons, he averaged 28 homers and 100 RBIs. The one glitch on his otherwise superb stat sheet to date is a .244 average in 2011—but the misery of that number was offset by 31 homers, including two crucial blasts (climaxed with a 12th-inning walk-off shot) to complete an improbable comeback against the New York Yankees on the final day of the regular season to clinch a wild card berth for the Rays.
Longoria’s residency at the Tropicana Dome has already run long enough that he’s currently the franchise leader in home runs, doubles and RBIs.
Carl Crawford (2002-10)
Certainly the most persevering player in the short history of Tampa Bay baseball littered with here-today, gone-tomorrow talents who never fulfilled their promise, Crawford spent nine years as witness to the best and worst of times in St. Petersburg, with consistently solid offensive numbers regardless of how high or low the team finished in the standings.
The multi-talented Houston native currently stands as the franchise leader in career hits, runs, doubles, triples, RBIs and stolen bases; after his departure from the Rays to Boston in 2010, he had collected more triples (105) than any other active player. Crawford’s speed, best exemplified by leading the AL four times each in triples and steals, left his managers itching to put him in the leadoff spot, but Crawford contained too much power and often batted second or third, hitting as many as 19 homers in a season.
Crawford drew much attention outside of Tampa Bay during the 2009 season. In May, he became only the second American Leaguer (after Eddie Collins) to steal six bases in a game; and he was named the MVP of the All-Star Game in St. Louis not for his bat or speed but with his glove—robbing Brad Hawpe of a home run over the left-field fence and securing a 4-3 win for the AL.
Aubrey Huff (2000-06)
A notoriously hot-and-cold slugger, the left-handed hitting Huff was the Devil Rays’ first star to come exclusively through their ranks, shining for several years for Tampa Bay in the early 2000s before experiencing the first of many career downslides.
Huff showed his first signs of stardom in 2002 when, after a few months in the minors to start the season, he hit .313 with 25 homers in 113 games. He followed that up with his most productive year to date in 2003—hitting .311 with 34 homers, 107 RBIs and still-existing franchise records in 198 hits and 47 doubles. There was a razor-thin dropoff in 2004, followed by more noticeable declines in 2005-06—precipitating a trade in July 2006 to Houston, two months shy of free agency for Huff; the deal paid off for the Devil Rays, who picked up Ben Zobrist in the deal.
From there, Huff’s career went through a yo-yo existence that included another .300-30-100 campaign (for Baltimore, in 2008), a 2009 season in which he seemed to run completely out of gas, only to resuscitate his career in 2010 with the world champion San Francisco Giants.
Fred McGriff (1998-2001, 2004)
An original member of the Devil Rays, McGriff came home to his birthplace of Tampa as part of the Devil Rays’ early efforts to bring in stars to give them an expansion lift; but unlike many of those players (including Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, Vinny Castilla and Greg Vaughn), McGriff was not at the end of his road and continued to produce solid power numbers at the same steady rate as he had previously done in Toronto, San Diego and Atlanta, lacking the “big” year but seldom letting his teammates down.
McGriff had a relatively quiet first year with the Devil Rays, popping just 19 home runs—but returned to prime form a year later, hitting .310 with 32 jacks and 104 RBIs. He went .277-27-106 in 2000, and was having yet another solid season midway through 2001—batting .318 with 19 homers—when he was dealt to the Cubs at the trading deadline.
In 2004, McGriff returned to Tampa Bay needing just nine home runs to reach the coveted career milestone of 500, but at age 40 his typically reliable numbers finally abandoned him. His average wilted to .181 and he could only park two longballs over the fence in 27 games; by the end of July, the Devil Rays decided they had more important business to take care of and released him.
McGriff’s 493 homers, 2,490 hits and 1,305 walks would have easily merited a Hall-of-Fame slot in earlier eras, but he played at a time when power sluggers were a dime a dozen, leaving his name to be lost in the immense shuffle of similar Cooperstown candidates.
Tampa Bay Rays Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Rays, decade by decade.
The Rays' Five Greatest Pitchers: A list of the five greatest pitchers based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Rays' Five Greatest Games: A list of five memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Rays' history.
How did This Great Game determine the list of the Rays' five greatest hitters? Find out here.
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