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The (Next) Next Big Thing

March 03, 2008
March 03, 2008

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March 3, 2008

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The (Next) Next Big Thing

There's a new Ray of hope in Tampa: sweet-swinging Evan Longoria, the best of baseball's deepest crop of prospects—and reason enough for a certain magazine to stand behind last year's prediction of future success

NO, HE IS NOTeven distantly related to her. No, his girlfriend's name is not Toni—it'sSavannah, and they've been dating, off and on, for seven years. No, he can'trecall ever being involved in anything more scandalous than the time in highschool he was required to pick up trash for four hours on a Saturday aspunishment for shooting spitballs in class. ¬∂ Evan Longoria's laid-back SoCalmien won't allow him to get too worked up about the uninspired gibes that comefrom having a name so similar to a certain actress's—the chants of"EEEE-va! EEEE-va!"; the playing of the Desperate Housewives theme songwhen he steps to the plate in opposing ballparks. He's nowhere near asdisgruntled as, say, Michael Bolton, the character in the 1999 cult comedyclassic Office Space who angrily declared, "There was nothing wrong with ituntil I was about 12 years old and that no-talent ass clown became famous andstarted winning Grammys."

This is an article from the March 3, 2008 issue

All that Longoriawill allow is that "it's kind of a funny coincidence, but it does getpretty old." Carl Crawford, Longoria's Tampa Bay Rays teammate, believesLongoria won't have to worry about the cracks much longer. "He's going tomake Evan Longoria the manliest name you can possibly think of," saysCrawford, "once he shows what he can do on the baseball field."

While hisnegligee-favoring doppelgänger continues to dominate the Maxim Hot 100 list,Evan Longoria, 22, has soared up some lists of his own since he was draftedthird overall out of Long Beach State by the Rays in June 2006. The 6'2",210-pound third baseman is generally considered to be among baseball's threebest prospects. (He tops Scouts Inc.'s list, and both Baseball Prospectus andBaseball America rank him in the top three.) His skills are so obvious thatteammates and opponents alike keep coming back to one phrase in particular todescribe him.

"He's thereal deal," says a player development executive for a National League club."We had him ranked as the best college bat in the nation the year he cameup—great bat speed, balance—and he's proved that out."

"He's gotlight-tower power," says Gary Gaetti, the former big league slugger who wasLongoria's hitting coach last season at Triple A Durham. "But he's a goodhitter too, and he uses the whole field. He's one of the better players I'veever seen coming through the minor leagues. He's the real deal."

"He looks assmooth at third base as anybody I've seen out there," says Rayscenterfielder B.J. Upton. "My brother [Justin Upton, the first overall pickin 2005] played against him in Double A, and he called me and said, 'Dude, thisguy Longoria you've got—he's the real deal.'"

In the 171 gamesin which he played in 2007 (Double A, Triple A, the Arizona Fall League andwith Team USA in November's World Cup) he had 33 homers, 115 RBIs and 42doubles, while maintaining an on-base percentage above .400. And all signsindicate that his ascent will continue in Tampa Bay sooner rather than later.While the Rays say that they want to see how Longoria performs during springtraining before naming him the Opening Day starter, they have already shiftedlast year's third baseman, Akinori Iwamura, to second. "For having playedonly a year-plus of pro baseball, he's extremely advanced," says Raysgeneral manager Andrew Friedman. "But what's most important here is what'sbest in terms of his development, and whether that's at Triple A or on the bigleague level, or a combination of the two, remains to be seen."

There are, ofcourse, other factors at play in the Rays' decision-making process. They rankedlast in team payroll ($24.1 million) last season, and even though they'vecommitted to ramping up the budget since Wall Street financier Stuart Sternbergacquired the team in 2005, they're not free spenders. The Rays might want todelay the start of Longoria's big league service clock—and, consequently, hiseventual eligibility for free agency.

The team alsoknows too well that "real deal" prospects are not the same thing as bigleague stars. It was only a year ago that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED printed a mock2010 Baseball Preview cover that read BELIEVE IT! THE DEVIL RAYS ARE THE BESTTEAM IN BASEBALL, and pictured the smiling faces of outfielders Delmon Youngand Elijah Dukes. The prodigiously talented but temperamental Young, who wasthe first pick in the 2003 draft, was dealt in late November to the MinnesotaTwins, and the prodigiously talented but troubled Dukes is now with theWashington Nationals after a series of well-publicized incidents of domesticviolence prompted the Rays to trade him in December.

With thathousecleaning complete, Rays players and management are confident that thesentiment expressed on that SI cover remains valid. "When we came in [twoyears ago], we inherited a lot of stuff that had been going on in thepast," says manager Joe Maddon. "Delmon was in there before that;Elijah was in there before that. It was up to us to evaluate what we saw andcreate the Ray way of doing things. Evan Longoria is part of that reinvention.In essence he will be the poster child of that new beginning."

FIVE YEARS ago,when Longoria was a senior at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif., itseemed unlikely that he'd turn out to be the poster child for anything. He was5'10", 160 pounds and was overshadowed by his teammate Derrick Williams, athree-sport star who went on to play three unexceptional seasons as atailback-kick returner at UCLA. Longoria was not recruited by a single DivisionI school and ended up going to nearby Rio Hondo Community College mostlybecause, he says, "I just wanted to go somewhere where I wouldn't sit onthe bench."

Then—andLongoria's not quite sure why—"something clicked," he says. "Ilearned how to hit." He batted .430 in his one year at Rio Hondo. Aftertransferring to Long Beach State in 2004, he batted .320 as a sophomore andbecame a Golden Spikes Award finalist a year later when he hit .353. In thesummer of 2005 he won the MVP award in the prestigious Cape Cod League, beatingout five of the first six picks in the following summer's draft as he led allplayers in home runs (eight), RBIs (35), slugging (.500) and extra-base hits(16).

When it came timefor the Rays to assemble their '06 draft board, their top choice was clear-cut,even though they were starved for arms. Friedman says their next three optionswere all pitchers—Brad Lincoln (who went fourth to the Pittsburgh Pirates),Andrew Miller (sixth, to the Detroit Tigers) and Tim Lincecum (10th, to the SanFrancisco Giants)—but Longoria was too good to pass up.

Twenty minutesafter he was drafted, Longoria signed a deal that included a $3 million signingbonus. "I didn't want to be one of those guys who sat at home and waited tonegotiate for more money," he says. "I had already had three weeks offfrom baseball, and I was ready to get up and go."

Longoria movedthrough the Rays' system so quickly in 2006 that it soon became difficult evento arrange a meal with him. "He was playing with Visalia in the [high ClassA] California League," says Mike Salazar, Longoria's coach at Rio Hondo,"and I'd planned to take him to lunch on my way home from a vacation [inAugust]. We're headed down the road, and I called him and said, 'I'm almostthere.' He said, 'Man, don't bother. They just promoted me to [Double A]Montgomery, and I'm already in Alabama.'"

Longoria reachedTriple A Durham just 14 months after he was drafted, and it was there that heproduced his signature minor league moment when he crushed a 1-and-2 pitch ontothe street behind the leftfield wall against the Toledo Mud Hens. The blow wasestimated to have gone 440 feet. "That was an absolute bomb," recallsGaetti, his eyes widening. "I'm talking a jungle mash. High and deep—justgone." In his locker Gaetti keeps a copy of the next day's DurhamHerald-Sun sports section, which features the Bulls' bench in a front-pagephoto that was snapped just after Longoria made contact (left). Many of theplayers have their hands on their heads in amazement; some look almostterrified by the violence they've just witnessed their teammate inflict on thebaseball.

IF THERE'S oneaspect of Longoria's game that might prevent him from trotting out to thirdbase when the Rays open the season at Baltimore's Camden Yards on March 31,it's his plate discipline. "Last year my whole focus was on pitch selectionand cutting down my strikeout ratio, and I didn't do as good a job as I wantedto," he says. He struck out 110 times in 136 regular-season games at Doubleand Triple A.

For Maddon,though, Longoria's adjustment to big league pitching is merely a matter ofwhen, not if. "He's going to hit for a high average; he's going to hit forpower; he's going to drive in runs. There's no question."

When Longoriadebuts, he could be followed by plenty of reinforcements. The Rays'organization features four other prospects who rank in Baseball Prospectus'stop 25: pitchers David Price (No. 6) and Wade Davis (No. 15), outfielderDesmond Jennings (No. 18) and shortstop Reid Brignac (No. 25). Just one otherorganization—the Cincinnati Reds—has as many as three. "We talk about theopportunities we have here every day," says Brignac, who roomed withLongoria in Montgomery last season. "We love playing together."

With aLongoria-led group of committed, baggage-free youngsters itching to join asolid core of emerging stars that includes Crawford, Upton, first basemanCarlos Pe√±a and ace Scott Kazmir, the Rays appear poised to reverse thefortunes of a franchise that has never won more than 70 games (box, above). Youmight even say that the Rays' future—for real, this time—looks anything butdesperate.

"He'll make Evan Longoria THE MANLIEST NAME youcan think of," says Crawford.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansRAY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY Young (inset far left) and Dukes didn't match the hype, but Longoria has the look of a keeper.PHOTO[See caption above] LAST YEARPHOTO[See caption above] THIS YEARPHOTOJEREMY WADSWORTH/THE BLADEWITH A BANG Longoria's head-turning bomb in Durham last season awed teammates and offered a snapshot of bigger things to come.PHOTOJEREMY WADSWORTH/THE BLADE[See caption above]