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Best Rays affiliates: Class A-Advanced

Tampa Bay’s Class A-Advanced affiliate has bounced across the country throughout franchise history.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Prospects are about the future, but I thought I’d take a look back at the past. I looked at every domestic Rays affiliate on Baseball Reference and totaled up the major league wins above replacement (prior to the 2020 season) to try and determine the best affiliates in franchise history. I did my best to filter out rehab appearances and zeroed out negative-WAR players since reaching the majors shouldn’t count against them.

2006 Visalia Oaks — 70.2 WAR (eight major leaguers)

3B Evan Longoria (56)
C John Jaso (10.8)
RHP Evan Meek (1.8)
RHP Ruddy Lugo (1.3)
OF Fernando Perez (.3)
IF Reid Brignac (0)
LHP James Houser (0)
LHP Brandon Mann (0)

The Devil Rays were only in Visalia for two years, but they made one of them count with the franchise WAR leader in his debut season.

Visalia was Evan Longoria’s second professional stop after being drafted. Although he was only 20 and was playing in college just months earlier, he was one of the best hitters in the California League. Among hitters with 100 plate appearances, he was 10th in average, 13th in on-base percentage, and third in slugging percentage. It would only take 28 games to earn another promotion.

Longoria wasn’t teamed up with a future MVP like he was with Hudson Valley, but Visalia did have a second All-Star in ... Evan Meek. He was acquired with Dale Thayer for Russell Branyan but never pitched in the majors for the Rays. He was taken by the Pirates in the Rule 5 draft, returned, and then sold to the Pirates so he could be sent to the minors.

His time in the Tampa Bay organization between those transactions was brief. For Visalia and Double-A Montgomery, he only pitched 72 innings with a 4.63 ERA. Still, the Pirates saw something in him and got a couple good seasons from him.

Despite persistent injuries (BA $), Jaso batted.300 for the third straight season and was ranked in BA’s top 30 for the third straight season. There were never questions about his bat, just his defense. Despite any shortcomings on that side of the ball, he had several productive major league seasons, including two stints with the Rays.

The Oaks only had Longoria for a brief period, and their team ERA of 4.83 was worse than the league average. However, with an offense that ranked second in homers and OPS as well as third in steals, their 75-65 record was second best in the league, and they reached the championship series.

Visalia was not Tampa Bay’s first affiliate in California League. Before Visalia, it was four seasons in Bakersfield. The 2002 team with Josh Hamilton and Rocco Baldelli led the way, but the 2004 team with James Shields and Jason Hammel wasn’t far behind.

Prior to that, the affiliate was a little closer to home in St. Petersburg. Victor Zambrano and Toby Hall combined to lead the most productive roster during those seasons.

For two seasons after leaving Visalia, the affiliate was back in Florida at Vero Beach. The 2008 team was consequential to the Rays’ future with David Price making his pro debut plus Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings advancing through the organization.

Since then, the Rays’ Class A-Advanced affiliate has been stationed in Charlotte, the organization’s spring training home. The best Stone Crabs team featured German Marquez, Blake Snell, Willy Adames, and Yonny Chirinos — among others — in 2015. That roster could challenge Longoria’s 2006 Visalia team.

Like some other affiliates, it could be a Wander Franco team that eventually takes the lead. Offensively, he’s primarily complemented by Vidal Brujan and Ronaldo Hernandez, and it was a deep pitching staff with Shane McClanahan and Joe Ryan plus Riley O’Brien, Michael Plassmeyer, and Cristopher Sanchez also appearing on top-30 lists.