When Carl Crawford left as a free agent after the 2010 season, he was arguably the greatest player in Rays franchise history.
He'd earned three team MVPs and a top rookie award during 8½ seasons in Tampa Bay, made four American League All-Star teams, won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards and had a top-seven finish in the American League MVP voting.
Drafted, developed and sentenced to play most of his career during the dark (green) Devil Rays days, Crawford was one of the few bright lights, and then, justly, an integral piece of the transformation to the contending Rays.
The time lapsed has not been kind to Crawford. Since making the lucrative but ill-advised decision to go to the Red Sox in 2011 rather than the Angels — and making the grating-to-Rays-fans comment that "My heart is here in Boston" — then being dealt to the Dodgers in August 2012, Crawford has been nowhere near the same player.
He hasn't made an All-Star team or won any awards, hasn't been among the league leaders, hasn't really had much of an impact. He has been on the DL seven times, after one stint during his Rays days (due to a freak finger injury). He has only once hit more than 10 homers, driven in more than 50 runs or stolen more than 20 bases. After compiling a 35.5 wins above replacement rating in Tampa Bay, his WAR for the five-plus seasons since is 4.0. And, by the way, he's coming up on 35 and still has another season after this one on his seven-year, $142 million deal.
But when he returns tonight to the Trop, for his first appearance since 2011, Crawford's place in Rays history should still be recognized, with a tip of the cap if not a round of applause. Though since knocked from the top spot, Crawford, based on performance with the Rays — as opposed to, say, Wade Boggs, who accrued most of his Hall of Fame credentials elsewhere — remains among the best players in Rays franchise history.
Here, as subjective as it may be, is my top five, and a next five:
1. Evan Longoria
Though having not yet caught Crawford in games played or hits — and six weeks from claiming his title as longest-serving Ray — Longoria has surpassed him as their franchise player and is probably underappreciated in being so. Playing in his ninth season, Longoria is consistently among the elite defenders at third base, with two Gold Gloves and a couple of runner-ups. And the biggest knock offensively tends to be that he hasn't been as good as he was in his first four seasons, when he averaged 28 homers and 100 RBIs, making three All-Star teams and four top-19 AL MVP finishes. Since then he has had only one season of more than 22 homers or 90 RBIs, hasn't been to an All-Star Game and showed up only once in the MVP voting. But overall, leading the team in homers, RBIs and extra-base hits among other categories — he's still been pretty good. Actually, the best they've had.
2. Carl Crawford
Though he has been gone six seasons, Crawford's name is still all over the Rays' record book, which is a testament to not just his longevity in accumulating hits, steals and runs but his talent, evidenced by his franchise-best .296 batting average. Less tangibly but equally relevant, Crawford, though still learning the game as he went, was a dynamic force, playing many years with little support on some bad teams, the player opponents made a point to try to stymie.
3. Ben Zobrist
The WAR mongers tend to love what Zobrist does, evidenced by his 2009-12 run as the overall major-league leader, ahead of Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera and, yes, Longoria. As impressive as Zobrist's blossoming from a slap-hitting middle infielder to a middle-of-the-lineup force was, his greater value to the Rays was his defensive versatility (and willingness to use it), allowing manager Joe Maddon remarkable freedom for lineup creativity and in-game maneuvering that was of great benefit to the team. Two team MVP awards, three top-18 AL MVP finishes and two All-Star selections are good proof.
4. David Price
During four full seasons and parts of three others, Price was the most decorated Ray, winning one AL Cy Young Award and finishing second and making four All-Star appearances. His 3.18 ERA and 1.142 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) are the best in franchise history and, though second overall in W's, he has their only 20- and 19-win seasons and ranks first with a .636 winning percentage. His performance in 2013's Game 163 and in relief in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS are two of the biggest in team history. But his record in the postseason, for whatever reason, was 1-4, 5.06. And he's still a pitcher, helping the team only once every five days. Which relegates him to just one of the best.
5. James Shields
While Price got more accolades, Shields did more for the franchise, pitching 200-plus innings for six straight seasons, winning between 11-15 games and creating the arrive early/work hard mold and "If you don't like it, pitch better" mantra that makes the entire team better and has since been passed on through Price, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer. His 87 wins, usually hard-earned, and 1,454 innings are most in franchise history — as was his grittiness and will to win.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.
The next five?
Acknowledging a sliding scale between productivity and longevity, how about this group:
6. 1B Carlos Peña
163 HRs in five seasons, plus slick defense and leadership.
7. INF Aubrey Huff
A pretty good player on, even more so than CC, some bad teams.
8. OF B.J. Upton
Never had the one great season but did lots of good things.
9 LHP Scott Kazmir
55 hard-earned wins over five-plus seasons, two All-Star selections.
10. 1B Fred McGriff
Past prime, but 97 HRs in 3½ seasons, .864 OPS overall counts.