The case for Evan Longoria as American League MVP is not obvious. There has been more talk about the second baseman in New York. The outfielder in Texas and the first baseman in Detroit have better-looking numbers.
But if you view the award in its most literal sense — the most irreplaceable player on a team — then you can make a case that Longoria had the rest of the league beat heading into the summer. The question today is whether he can finish the job.
The only way Longoria is a realistic contender for MVP is if the Rays reach the playoffs. And it's starting to look like the best way for the Rays to hold off the Red Sox is for Longoria to get his rear in gear.
It's not fair, I understand that. Basically I'm saying Longoria has done more than any player in a Rays uniform, but also suggesting the 24-year-old still has not done enough. Yet, in a way, that's the crux of the premise:
You see, Longoria really is that valuable to Tampa Bay.
On a team built around run prevention, Longoria is the most dependable run producer. For the most part, you can have faith Tampa Bay's pitching staff will live up to expectations. And the defense, with Longoria as one of the anchors, is almost always there.
It is run scoring where the Rays struggle. So when Longoria disappears on offense — and he is hitting .207 with two home runs and nine RBIs in his past 22 games — the team's winning percentage fades exponentially.
That is not hyperbole. The distance from dynamite to downtrodden in Tampa Bay can be measured pretty accurately by Longoria's run production. When he gets at least one run or RBI in a game, the Rays are 55-19 (.743). And when they play a game without Longoria scoring or driving in a run, they are 14-26 (.350).
Now you could argue this is true for most sluggers. When they are hitting, their teams are winning. But look around at the other MVP candidates in the AL, and you'll see the divide is far greater for Longoria.
If the Twins get no run production out of Joe Mauer, they are still above .500 (24-21). Ditto for Justin Morneau (33-32). The Yankees still have a winning record when Mark Teixeira (19-18) fails to produce and they're close to .500 without Robinson Cano's help (22-24).
Miguel Cabrera has had a dramatic impact in Detroit, and Josh Hamilton has been critical for Texas, but neither of their teams has a won-loss disparity quite as large as Longoria's and Tampa Bay's when they're not producing.
This doesn't necessarily mean Longoria is better than any of those players, though you could argue that, too. What it suggests is his bat is more valuable to his team than any other hitter in the AL. And it makes sense when you think about it.
The Rays are built differently than a lot of clubs. Look at the best half-dozen teams in the league. All of them are among the AL leaders in team batting average. All of them except the Rays.
Tampa Bay has a bunch of guys who walk a lot and strike out a lot. They're not consistent, and they don't hit a lot of home runs. For opposing pitchers, the Rays offense is like the easy college class that's going to prop up the rest of your grade point average.
The only shutout of Dallas Braden's career is the perfect game he threw against the Rays. The only complete game of Brandon Morrow's career is the one-hitter he threw against the Rays. Edwin Jackson has a 4.83 ERA but somehow threw a no-hitter against Tampa Bay.
The point being, the Rays win because of their pitching. Because of their defense. And because of Longoria and Carl Crawford.
Through April and May, when Tampa Bay was the hottest team in baseball, Longoria and Crawford were carrying the team on a near-daily basis. But Longoria went cold in June, and the Rays tumbled out of first place a short time later.
So is it reasonable to put the pennant race on Longoria's shoulders this morning?
Yeah, I think it is.
Jason Bartlett may be hitting well below his career average, but nobody expected him to lead the way to the pennant. Gabe Kapler has been a huge disappointment, but he's a spare part. Ben Zobrist's slide was not completely unexpected. B.J. Upton has not been a feared hitter since the 2008 postseason. Longoria is the closest thing the Rays have to a superstar. And that means far more is expected out of him.
Right now, his overall numbers are very good. Better than most in the AL, and close to what he did in 2008-09.
But this offense needs more. The disparity between Longoria's batting average in victories (.348) and losses (.188) just points out how valuable he is to this lineup. And over the next seven weeks, he needs to be the player everyone else turns to.
Numbers are nice, but memories are what helps make a player's career special.
With the Rays struggling to hang on during a pennant race, Longoria has an opportunity to create that type of lore. He has a chance to prove that he really is Tampa Bay's most valuable player.
Who's the man?
Among AL MVP contenders, no player appears to have a bigger impact on his team than Evan Longoria. The Rays are more than twice as likely to win when Longoria scores or drives in a run.
Player, teamRecord whenRecord when notDiff. producing a runproducing a run
Evan Longoria, Rays55-19 (.743)14-26 (.350).393
Carl Crawford, Rays51-18 (.739)8-27 (.400).339
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers45-32 (.584)10-24 (.270).314
Josh Hamilton, Rangers49-22 (.690)16-26 (.381).309
Paul Konerko, White Sox44-20 (.688)20-30 (.400).288
Robinson Cano, Yankees48-19 (.716)22-24 (.478).238
Adrian Beltre, Red Sox44-21 (.677)22-28 (.440).237
Vlad Guerrero, Rangers43-24 (.642)22-24 (.478).164
Mark Teixeira, Yankees50-24 (.676)19-18 (.514).162
Justin Morneau, Twins31-18 (.633)33-32 (.508).125
Joe Mauer, Twins40-29 (.580)24-21 (533).047
Through Wednesday's games