The Rays were an expansion team in 1998 (Devil Rays at the time – new ownership dropped the “Devil” part before the 2008 season). In 1995, expansion teams were awarded to the Tampa Bay area, and to Phoenix. Oddly enough, by the time the Rays began play, their stadium was already in need of upgrades. This was due to the fact that the stadium had been built in 1990, when the city had hopes of luring a team to Florida. The San Francisco Giants nearly moved there after the 1992 season, but the sale of the team was halted by an 11th hour vote by MLB owners, who were hearing a great deal of outcry from San Francisco representatives. So, the Giants were sold to a group that kept them in San Fran (kinda makes you wonder what 3 of the last 5 World Series’ would have looked like, huh?). This is part of the reason that the Rays, one of the newest franchises in baseball, is already looking for a new stadium, and is considering a move across the bay into Tampa (they currently are in St. Petersburg).
Historically, the Rays have had little success. Their first 10 seasons saw them finish in last place 9 times, and even when they didn’t happen to finish in last, they were still 21 games below .500 (though, it was their first season to break the 70-win plateau). Then came the 2008 season. While they were all very young, manager Joe Maddon led the talented team to its first winning season. Not only did they finish with a winning record, but they actually won the AL East division, and went on to win the AL pennant, before losing the World Series to the Phillies. Since that time, the Rays have reached the postseason 3 of the last 6 seasons (twice as a Wild Card, and once more as the AL East champions). However, they have failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.
With a team so young, it should come as no surprise that they have very few award winners. No MVP winners as of yet, but they have had a Cy Young winner, and three Rookies of the Year. It also comes as no surprise, given their limited success, that there are no Hall of Fame members that spent the majority of their careers with Tampa Bay – though, a couple have suggested they would like to wear the TB hat on their plaque (Boggs & Dawson), which never came to fruition. With all of that being said, “all-time greatest” is probably going to seem like an odd list, because so many of their successful players are still playing. But, here goes…
5. James Shields (’06-’12) – I never did understand the nickname “Big Game James,” because his postseason ERA in Tampa was 5.97, outside of one 5.2 inning shutout in the ’08 World Series. Maybe I just missed something. Be that as it may, Shields did lead the league in complete games & shutouts in 2011, and finished 3rd in Cy Young voting. That was also his lone All-Star game appearance. He has won more games (87) and struck out more batters (1,250) than any other pitcher in Rays history. Though, one would have to also recognize that a portion of the reason for that is that he has pitched over 300 more innings than any other pitcher in Rays history – which is why he is ranked this low. But, he also ranks 2nd all-time among Rays pitchers in WHIP (1.22), 4th in ERA (3.89), and 1st in K/BB ratio (3.68).
4. Ben Zobrist (’06-present) – This might be a name you weren’t expecting. You might expect to see Carlos Pena or Matt Garza here. But, when you really start to look at where Zobrist ranks on a number of franchise lists, I think it’s hard to keep him off this list. He is easily the most versatile player the franchise has ever seen. He has played over 200 games at SS, 2B, and RF. He has also started at least one game at every other position on the field, and has played DH in several games. He hasn’t ever led the league in anything, but has been consistently around a 20 HR/20 SB kind of player. He has also made 2 All-Star game appearances. He leads all Rays batters in doubles (229), and is 3rd all-time in OBP (.354), 5th in OPS (.783), 2nd in hits (1,016), 5th in HR (116), 3rd in RBI (511), 3rd in stolen bases (102), and 5th in OPS+ (117).
3. Carl Crawford (’02-’10) – Before he signed for big money in Boston, Carl Crawford was a staple for the Rays franchise in LF. Crawford led the league in stolen bases 4 of his first 5 full seasons in the majors, and he stole at least 46 bases 7 times. He also led the league in triples 4 times while with the Rays. He appeared in 4 All-Star games, won a Gold Glove (though, he absolutely deserved several more – he was a fantastic fielder for TB), and reached as high as 7th in MVP voting. Crawford leads all Rays batters in batting (.296), hits (1,480), total bases (2,217), triples (105), and stolen bases (409). He also ranks 6th in OPS (.781), 3rd in doubles (215), 6th in HR (104), 2nd in RBI (592), and 7th in OPS+ (107).
2. David Price (’08-’14) – There’s really no debate over who the best pitcher is to ever wear the Rays jersey. Price is a four-time All-Star, Cy Young award winner (’12), and was runner-up in Cy Young voting in 2010. He has led the league once each in wins, ERA, strikeouts, and K/BB ratio. And, when you take into consideration that Price really only played the equivalent of about 5.5 seasons in TB (’08 was just 5 games, and he was traded in 2014), it’s impressive what he was able to accomplish. He’s the Rays’ all-time leader in ERA (3.18), win pct. (.636), WHIP (1.14), and ERA+ (122). He’s also second only to Shields in wins (82), strikeouts (1,065), and K/BB ratio (3.45).
1. Evan Longoria (’08-present) – There’s a reason the Rays locked up Longoria early on in his career, unlike any other player to come through their franchise. Gold Glove winning, clubhouse leading, MVP candidate third basemen don’t exactly grow on trees. But, that’s exactly the kind of player Longo is. Already 3-time All-Star, 2-time Gold Glove winner, Rookie of the Year, who has finished in the top 10 in MVP voting three times . . . who just turned 29. His stats may not overwhelm you at first, since he hasn’t ever led the league anything. But, he’s consistently good, and that puts him at or near the top of almost every offensive category in Rays history. Check it out: 5th in OBP (.351), 1st in SLG (.494), 2nd in OPS (.845), 3rd in hits (975), 2nd in total bases (1,777), 2nd in doubles (226), 1st in HR (184), 1st in RBI (635), and 1st in OPS+ (131).