Carl Crawford — remember him? — returns to the Trop this week for the first time as a visitor. Fairly or not, he's sure to be called a lot of different things, especially given his decision to sign with archrival Red Sox and some of the awkwardness in terms of what he said, and didn't say, immediately afterward. But the one label he clearly deserves is that of the best-ever Rays player. There have been better players who wore Rays (or Devil Rays) uniforms, such as Hall-of-Famer Wade Boggs. But no one — longevity, performance, contributions and excitement — who played better as a Ray. Here's one look at a top 5 list:
1. Carl Crawford, LF (2002-10)
A tremendous athlete who learned the nuances of the game on the fly, he battled to overcome the anonymity and embarrassment of playing for the Devil Rays to become the franchise's first true star. Watching him on a nightly basis during his nine seasons was a treat given the excitement he could create, and four All-Star Game selections, three team MVP awards, a Silver Slugger and a much-deserved Gold Glove provide proof of how good he was. So does the $142 million, seven-year deal he got on the open market.
Rays stats: .296 avg., 104 HRs, 592 RBIs, 105 SBs, 409 SBs in 1,235 games. WAR: 26.9
2. Evan Longoria, 3B (2008-present)
Longoria is certainly on his way to challenging Crawford, with the ability to be a true game-changer on both sides of the ball, though he's only in his fourth big-league season (which hasn't been going too well). The biggest difference is timing: He came up as the Rays started to get good, and with national star power no Ray had ever had. Three All-Star selections, two Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger and a rookie of the year award help, too. Longevity will be the key issue — he's signed through 2013, with the Rays holding options through 2016.
Rays stats: .281 avg., 86 HRs, 315 RBIs, 130 2Bs in 465 games. WAR: 19.5
3. James Shields, RHP (2006-present)
Shields has never been an All-Star, hasn't had more than 14 wins in a season and has finished with a winning record only twice. Yet he has been the best starting pitcher the Rays have had in terms of overall contributions, specifically durability and reliability. He has exceeded 200 innings in each of his four full seasons and provided a model for success the young starters have followed. Plus, he has won a few big games.
Rays stats: 61-55, 4.13 in 165 games, 1.263 WHIP (walks+hits per inning). WAR: 13.4.
4. Carlos Peña, 1b (2007-10)
Peña had only four seasons with the Rays, but his contributions were enormous, averaging 36 HRs and 102 RBIs, playing spectacular defense that made the whole infield better and providing tremendous leadership. (A .238 average was his biggest flaw). Peña won a Silver Slugger award and a Gold Glove and made an All-Star team. And he is the only Rays player to finish in the top 10 of the AL MVP voting twice.
Rays stats: .238 avg., 144 HRs, 407 RBIs, 629 Ks, .884 OPS in 566 games. WAR: 11.0
5. Scott Kazmir, LHP (2004-09)
Kazmir was never as successful as he could have been, but he established himself as a front-of-the-rotation starter in a bad situation, going 33-26, 3.52 on 2005-07 teams that were a combined 98 games under .500. He was a two-time All-Star and was the franchise leader in wins, strikeouts and innings until being surpassed by Shields.
Rays stats: 47-37, 3.61 ERA in 125 games, 783 Ks, 332 BBs in 723 IP. WAR: 16.7
ALSO CONSIDERED: LHP David Price, 1B/OF Aubrey Huff, 1B/DH Fred McGriff
Note: WAR is a sabermetric estimate of how many wins a player is worth to his team.
Carl Crawford figures the media will make a bigger deal out of his first trip back to the Trop this week than he will but says he understands. What he doesn't know is what kind of reception he'll get from fans that cheered him for nine years.
"I'm wondering what kind of reaction I'm going to get," he said Saturday in Toronto. "I'll just go through it and see what happens."
His expectation? "I don't know. In spring training I thought things would be cool and it wasn't (with some boos), so I don't know."
His former teammates are curious, too.
"The things that man did for this organization, the excitement he brought and his accomplishments over the years; he should definitely get a warm welcome,'' CF B.J. Upton said.
"I think the fans in Tampa Bay should be very supportive of him,'' said SS Reid Brignac, one of Crawford's closest friends. "What he did here, he was always a shining star. … I just don't feel like they should boo him or say anything bad. No one here has hard feelings for him going to Boston.''
Got a minute? Adam Russell
Must-see TV? Wipeout (an obstacle-course game show), it makes me laugh every time.
Big-night-out meal? The biggest steak possible. I'm a meat-and-potatoes kinda guy.
Singer/band you'd most like to be on stage with? The Boss, Bruce Springsteen. No one's cooler than the Boss.
Worst job? First day working at a farm market, I had to move 6 tons of pumpkins … thousands of them. I've never been so tired in my life.
Dream date? Sara Jean Underwood (model, actress, 2007 Playboy Playmate of the Year), "I just think she's so gorgeous."
Expect RHP Alex Cobb to be sent back to Triple A when he's no longer needed in the rotation rather than moved to the bullpen. … LHP David Price is one of the best and most popular big-leaguers on Twitter yet, somehow, was fined for violating MLB guidelines for doing so within 30 minutes of game time. Wouldn't a warning Tweet have sufficed? … In an interview with 620-AM's Dan Sileo, former Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli said he wouldn't have done anything different during his tenure but acknowledged "we could've done a little better" in trades. … Angels manager Mike Scioscia, on whether managing against former coach Joe Maddon is like managing against himself: "Just a smarter version." … Top draft pick RHP Taylor Guerrieri hasn't made a good impression, but it may be a matter of getting bad advice from his "advisers" at Greg Genske's Legacy agency, which also reps Carl Crawford. … 2B Cory Spangenberg, taken No. 10 by San Diego, was one of the players the Rays were eyeing in the draft. … Ex-Rays C Toby Hall is hitting .272 for Camden in the independent Atlantic League with no issues from his previously sore shoulder. … Looks like the Angels will end up releasing ex-Rays LHP Scott Kazmir, who is 0-4, 15.15 on a Triple-A "rehab" with 17 hits, 17 walks and 13 Ks in 132/3 IP, and eating his $12 million salary (and $2.5 million buyout).