ST. PETERSBURG -- As an organization, the Rays have been one of the most successful franchises over the past decade-plus. Tampa Bay has two American League pennants, including one in 2020.
Since the Rays' first season in 1998, the franchise has had many talented players and numerous superb single-season performances. But what would it look like if you built a team on the best single-season performances at each position? If you’ve wondered that, then you’re in luck, as MLB.com is taking a look at the best single-season performances at every position.
Catcher: Mike Zunino, 2021
Key stat: 33 homers
Aside from what looked like a potential breakout 2017 season in Seattle, Zunino had been known strictly for his defense prior to his third season with the Rays. The catcher was well-regarded for his pitch-framing and game-calling, and the Rays brought him back in 2021 after declining his club option to serve as a safety net for their talented but mostly inexperienced pitching staff. But Zunino’s years of work with hitting coach Chad Mottola finally paid dividends, and he emerged as a first-time All-Star by slugging a career-high 33 homers, driving in 62 runs and finishing the season with an .860 OPS and 3.8 WAR over 109 games. It was enough for Zunino to earn team MVP honors from the local chapter of the BBWAA and to bump out Dioner Navarro’s 2008 season, which was arguably the best before at a position that’s provided its share of challenges for Tampa Bay over the years.
First base: Carlos Pena, 2007
Key stat: 46 home runs
Before he was ripping through polo shirts on MLB Network, Pena was launching 46 home runs in a dominant 2007 season. After signing a Minor League deal in the offseason, Pena quickly became the starting first baseman for the club and the most dangerous bat in the lineup. He made the entire front office look smart, finishing with franchise records in homers, RBIs (121) and OPS (1.037).
Second base: Ben Zobrist, 2009
Key stat: .948 OPS
When you think of the Rays, it’s almost impossible not to think of Zobrist and the defensive versatility he provided, which has since nearly become a requirement in the organization.
But aside from his versatility, Zobrist could really swing it at the plate. His best season came in 2009, his breakout campaign. Zobrist set career highs with 27 home runs, 91 RBIs and a .948 OPS. He also played in 152 games and made the first of his three career All-Star appearances.
Shortstop: Jason Bartlett, 2009
Key stat: All-Star
Willy Adames’ 2019 was impressive, but the consistency Bartlett showed in ‘09 gives him the nod here. Bartlett played in 137 games at short and posted career highs in batting average (.320), homers (14), RBIs (66) and stolen bases (30). Those impressive numbers earned Bartlett his first and only All-Star appearance.
Third base: Evan Longoria, 2009
Key stat: 7.0 bWAR
Longoria had a lot of really good seasons during his impressive 10-year run with the franchise, but his best offensive season came in 2009. He finished with 33 home runs, 113 RBIs and an .889 OPS, proving that his AL Rookie of the Year campaign in ‘08 was not a fluke. Aside from his impressive offensive numbers in ‘09, Longoria also won an AL Silver Slugger Award and an AL Gold Glove Award for his work at the hot corner.
Left field: Carl Crawford, 2010
Key stat: 47 stolen bases
Crawford’s career with the Rays was so impressive that his 2009 season -- during which he stole 60 bases -- isn’t necessarily his best with the franchise, though it makes a compelling case. However, we decided that Crawford’s best all-around season came in ‘10, when he hit 13 triples and a career-high 19 homers and finished with an .851 OPS. In addition to that production, Crawford swiped 47 bags, finished seventh in AL Most Valuable Player Award voting and won his only Gold Glove Award in left field.
Center field: Kevin Kiermaier, 2015
Key stat: AL Gold Glove Award winner
Kiermaier is arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball, but the two knocks on him are his offense and his ability to stay healthy for an entire season. In 2015, Kiermaier displayed some offensive potential with 10 home runs and 12 triples, stayed healthy and brought home his first AL Gold Glove Award.
Right field: Austin Meadows, 2019
Key stat: 33 home runs
After the 2018 season, manager Kevin Cash called Meadows and made sure to tell him that he was going to be the team’s everyday right fielder in ‘19. Meadows said that conversation helped him relax going into the offseason, and it resulted in a breakout season. He led the team with 33 home runs and 89 RBIs, which resulted in him becoming an All-Star for the first time in his career.
Designated hitter: Jose Canseco, 1999
Key stat: .931 OPS
In his first season with the club, Canseco made his presence felt in the middle of the Rays' lineup. He launched 33 home runs in 113 games in 1999 en route to his sixth (and final) career All-Star appearance.
Starting pitcher: Blake Snell, 2018
Key stat: 1.89 ERA
The Rays' organization has been built on stellar pitching, but no performance was better than the one Snell put together during the 2018 season. Snell went 21-5 and posted a 1.89 ERA in 31 starts en route to his first AL Cy Young Award. Those numbers and the hardware are impressive enough -- and broke nearly all club single-season records -- but the left-hander’s season is even more impressive when you break it down.
Left-handed hitters recorded just 17 hits off Snell that season and finished with a .222 slugging percentage. Snell was 10-1 with a 1.27 ERA at Tropicana Field, making him an automatic win. And perhaps the most incredible stat of all is the fact that Snell went 9-0 with a 1.17 ERA in 11 second-half starts.
Relief pitcher: Fernando Rodney, 2012
Key stat: 48 saves
Rodney has played for 11 teams in his career, but he had the most success in a Rays uniform. His 2012 campaign was as dominant as it gets for a relief pitcher. To begin, he posted a 0.60 ERA, which is almost unheard of for a reliever, given the fact that one bad outing has the potential of ruining that number for the remainder of the season. That outing never came for Rodney, as all he did was shove, recording a career-best 48 saves in the process. His season was so impressive that he finished fifth in AL Cy Young Award voting and 13th in AL MVP Award voting.