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Rays top prospects of all-time: No. 7

After 20 years of Rays baseball, we’re counting down the top prospects in franchise history.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

When I put together the list and started writing the posts, I was not anticipating one of the most significant trades in franchise history.

20. SS Reid Brignac
19. RHP Matt White
18. RHP Chris Archer
17. RHP Wade Davis/LHP Jake McGee
16. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
15. 1B/LHP Brendan McKay
14. SS Tim Beckham
13. RHP Brent Honeywell
12. SS Willy Adames
11. OF Desmond Jennings
10. LHP Blake Snell
9. OF Wil Myers
8. LHP Scott Kazmir

7. 3B Evan Longoria

Acquired: No. 3 pick by Devil Rays (2006)

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 2 (2007), 7 (2006)
(Devil) Rays Top-30 ranks: 1 (2007), 2 (2006)
League Top-20 ranks: 2 (2007 Southern League)

(Devil) Rays best tools: Best power hitter (2006, 2007), Best average hitter (2007)
League best tools: Best power prospect (2007 Southern League)

Longoria’s time as a prospect was brief. That’s what happens when you’re a top draft pick from college, meet or exceed every expectation in pro ball, and quickly transition to the majors.

After the 2007 season, there was only one batting prospect better than Longoria, according to Baseball America — Reds outfielder Jay Bruce. The third baseman was named the Southern League MVP despite playing only 105 games for Montgomery before a promotion to Triple A. Among qualified hitters in the league, he was sixth in average, fourth in on-base percentage, first in slugging, and first in OPS.

His average dipped to .269 in 31 games with Durham, but he was still an impressive hitter. Thanks to his great approach, he posted a .398 OBP, and he hit eight doubles and five home runs for a .490 SLG. Only five hitters younger than him took an at-bat in the International League that season.

It was a case of the scouting report and the stats lining up perfectly. According to BA’s report ($) following that season, Longoria’s hit and power tools were both 70s, near the top of the 20-80 scale. He was able to take advantage of that bat speed and ability to hit to all fields thanks to his plate approach. He only struck out in 19.1 percent of his plate appearances, and he owned a 12.7 percent walk rate. He knew which pitches to lay off and which ones to drive.

He wasn’t just a one-dimensional player, either. In the field, he was described as an above-average third baseman thanks to his soft hands and plus arm.

The Devil Rays were probably lucky to get Longoria. Although he was ranked fourth in the class by BA, the Rockies were strongly considering him with the No. 2 pick. Fortunately for Tampa Bay, Colorado’s ownership stepped in. Too many third basemen, they said! It’s true that they had a 26-year-old Garrett Atkins, and Ian Stewart was their top prospect, ranked No. 16 in baseball. It’s fair to say the selection of pitcher Greg Reynolds didn’t work out for them, though.

Longoria was great in 2007, but what he did in his pro debut may have been even better. After an eight-game warmup with Hudson Valley, he went straight to Class A-Advanced Visalia. In 28 games, he posted a 1.020 OPS with eight home runs. He was too good for the league, so he was promoted to Double A. He was finally challenged there, posting a higher average than OBP in 26 games. Still, it was impressive to reach the upper minors in his pro debut.

In just 1 12 professional seasons, Longoria showed a lot of growth. His pre-draft report stated his power to be at least average. That proved to be technically correct -- plus-plus pop is in fact at least average.

Longoria started 2008 in the minors, but his fortunes quickly changed. It wasn’t because of his great performance with Durham. He batted .200 with a .533 OPS in seven games. When Opening Day starter Willy Aybar went on the disabled list with a hamstring, Longoria got the earlier-than-expected call to the majors. On April 12, he made his debut and went 1-for-3 on the Yankees. On April 14, he hit his first home run, a seventh-inning, game-tying solo shot off Brian Bruney.

On April 18, he had a more literal fortune change. After just six games with the Rays, he agreed to a contract that guaranteed him $17.5 million with the potential to earn a lot more through team options. Before that contract was over, he signed another extension through the 2022 season with a team option for 2023. These contracts allowed a small-market team to keep a player of Longoria’s caliber for as long as the Rays did.

In that decade, Longoria built a legacy that will never be forgotten in Tampa Bay. On the field, he made an impact immediately and became the face of the rebranded Rays. In 2008, he missed time with a broken wrist, but he made the All-Star team and was named the unanimous American League Rookie of the Year. In 122 games, he hit 27 home runs with a .874 OPS. He hit four home runs in the ALCS against the Red Sox.

Unlike other prospects on this list who had strong starts but were unable to follow them up, Longoria developed into one of the game’s biggest stars. In 2009, he slugged 33 home runs and won a Silver Slugger. In 2010, he made his third straight All-Star team, although surprisingly, he hasn’t been back to an All-Star Game since. In the field, he was just as good. He has three Gold Gloves to his name despite playing in a league that includes players like Adrian Beltre and Manny Machado.

Perhaps the greatest moment of his career came on Sept. 28, 2011. With a chance to reach the postseason, the Rays faced a 7-0 deficit in the eighth inning against the Yankees. He hit a three-run homer to cap a six-run inning, giving Dan Johnson an opportunity to tie the game with a home run in the ninth. In the 11th, Longoria’s walk-off home run down the left-field line completed an improbable comeback that sent the Rays back to the playoffs.

Off the field, in addition to his co-ownership of sports bars, Longoria has always been active in the community. He was the team’s nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, presented to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” It was the second time he was the Rays’ nominee. According to the press release accompanying his nomination, Longoria and his wife are involved in numerous charities, including the Rays Baseball Foundation, Moffitt Cancer Center, and Suncoast Credit Union’s “Reading with the Rays” initiative, among others.

It’s a shame that Longoria was traded. It is not hard to justify the trade — he’s an aging player perhaps in decline still owed a lot of money. However, he was Rays Baseball. He was the face of the franchise as it transformed from a laughingstock to regular contender. His performance and leadership on the field were vital, but the use of his platform as a wealthy professional athlete to help the disadvantaged and various causes in the community proved he was more than just a great ballplayer.