In a Rays season filled with firsts, this week will likely provide another signature moment for the franchise.
When the Baseball Writers Association of America announce the winners of two of its most prestigious awards — AL rookie of the year (today) and AL manager of the year (Wednesday) — Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and manager Joe Maddon are expected by many to be on the receiving end.
Though one team has picked up two of baseball's four major awards (Cy Young and MVP are the others) in six of the past seven seasons, these two honors would be especially significant for the Rays for a few reasons: They would be their first such awards in their 11-year history; and the hardware would be yet another lasting symbol of success for a club that had very little to brag about in its first decade of existence.
And maybe more importantly, as ESPN baseball analyst Buck Showalter said, "It gives you an idea of where the Rays are headed down the road."
Showalter earned manager of the year honors twice in his career, with the Rangers in 2004 and the Yankees in 1994. But it was one year Showalter didn't — in 1999, when he led the Diamondbacks to a dramatic turnaround from 65 wins to 100 and an NL West title — that gave him more appreciation for what Maddon did this season.
"If Joe doesn't get the award," Showalter said. "They're drug testing the wrong people."
Maddon's case is almost a slam dunk. In his third season with the Rays, he led them to a 31-win improvement over the previous season as Tampa Bay went 97-65 and won arguably the toughest division (AL East) in baseball before clinching its first pennant and World Series berth. It was the third-best improvement in AL history as the Rays became the first AL team to go from the worst record in the major leagues to the postseason.
Longoria, 23, played a huge part in that as well. The former first-round pick who started the season in Triple A led all major-league rookies with 27 home runs and a .531 slugging percentage. Despite missing 30 games with a fractured wrist, Longoria also led all AL rookies with 85 RBIs and 60 extra-base hits.
"When people talk about talented young players, they often talk about their offensive abilities," Showalter said. "But what impressed me the most about (Longoria) is he could do it defensively, too."
In 2007, Delmon Young finished second in the AL rookie of the year voting, the highest finish by a Tampa Bay rookie.
But like the only other team to go from the majors' worst record the year before to the postseason (the 1991 Braves), the Rays will likely get two big winners this week.
And in doing so, they'll take their place in history.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]s.com.