In this installment of our series on the Rays’ team MVPs, we take a look down memory lane at the accomplishments of Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, and Ben Zobrist. Between Pena’s record-setting season, Bartlett’s contributions to the Rays’ first winning season in 2008, and Zobrist’s coming out party, there is much excitement to recall. Zobrist is the only player in this list who still plays for Tampa Bay, returning to spring training camp this week after playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
2007: Carlos Pena
In the best season of his career to date, Carlos Pena had a magical season with the Devil Rays in 2007. While hitting .282, Pena set seven franchise records, including RBIs, 121, homeruns, 46, and slugging percentage, .627. Although Pena excelled during the season, he originally signed with the organization during the offseason and attended spring training as a non-roster invitee. After being reassigned to minor league camp, Pena was called back up towards the end of spring training after first baseman Greg Norton suffered a knee injury. The D-Rays found themselves in a lucky situation, as Pena’s defense at first base was as impressive as his bat. Pena had the most assists at first base, 130, in the American League for the season. Pena finished the season on a high note, hitting an AL-best 13 homers in September. To top off his record-setting season, Pena garnered several awards along with team MVP, including AL Comeback of the Year, a Silver Slugger Award, and was a contender for the AL MVP vote. Carlos Pena has always been a fan favorite, and his numbers make it easy to see why Rays fans developed a fondness for the first baseman early on.
2008: Jason Bartlett
The Rays acquired Jason Bartlett from the Minnesota Twins following the 2007 season in the trade that sent Delmon Young to Minnesota in exchange for Bartlett and pitcher Matt Garza. While Bartlett hit .286, his 75 runs, 43 RBI, and 1 home run were not very impressive. But Bartlett became a crucial member of the Rays’ 2008 squad as many of their key players served terms on the disabled list. While the Rays were ranked first in the division leading up to the All-Star break, they fell from the top spot during the week Bartlett was injured. His absence had one of the greatest effects on the team than when players like Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, and rookie Evan Longoria spent longer periods of time on the DL during the season. Fans took notice of Bartlett’s solid defense at shortstop, especially his spectacular double plays with second baseman Akinori Iwamura, but also his encouraging spirit directed towards teammates. Bartlett was not the only Rays player to have a memorable 2008 season, as it was the first time the Rays made it to the postseason. In their worst-to-first Cinderella season, America took notice of Bartlett when he stole a base in Game 1 of the World Series and Taco Bell gave away free tacos nationwide to celebrate. As Bartlett bolstered a much-improved Rays roster in 2008, earning the team MVP award capped off Bartlett’s new start with the franchise that was entering a new phase of winning seasons and playoff contentions.
2009: Ben Zobrist
Following the Rays’ breakout season in 2008, Ben Zobrist was suddenly on everyone’s radar. Known for his ability to play all seven utility positions, the switch hitter was used primarily by the Rays as a backup and defensive replacement prior to 2009. But in 2009, everything changed. With a .297 average and 27 homers, including three grand slams, Zobrist posted an impressive .948 OPS. During the season, 91 was a magical number for Zobrist, as he drove in 91 RBIs, scored 91 runs, and drew 91 walks. Zobrist led hitters in the majors with an 8.3 WAR, putting him in the spotlight. And Zobrist did that while continuing to play over the place, starting 91 games at second base, while playing an additional 70 games in the outfield. Zobrist also earned a trip to that year’s All-Star game. And although the Rays did not make it back to the postseason in 2009, Zobrist helped Tampa Bay reach their second winning season in franchise history with an 84-78 record. Zobrist continues to be one of the backbones of the Rays’ lineup and still plays both the infield and outfield to provide flexibility for manager Joe Maddon, giving fans an endless list of reasons to root for Zorilla.