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FIVE YEARS ago, when Longoria was a senior at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif., it seemed unlikely that he'd turn out to be the poster child for anything. He was 5'10", 160 pounds and was overshadowed by his teammate Derrick Williams, a three-sport star who went on to play three unexceptional seasons as a tailback-kick returner at UCLA. Longoria was not recruited by a single Division I school and ended up going to nearby Rio Hondo Community College mostly because, he says, "I just wanted to go somewhere where I wouldn't sit on the bench."
Then—and Longoria's not quite sure why—"something clicked," he says. "I learned how to hit." He batted .430 in his one year at Rio Hondo. After transferring to Long Beach State in 2004, he batted .320 as a sophomore and became a Golden Spikes Award finalist a year later when he hit .353. In the summer of 2005 he won the MVP award in the prestigious Cape Cod League, beating out five of the first six picks in the following summer's draft as he led all players in home runs (eight), RBIs (35), slugging (.500) and extra-base hits (16).
When it came time for 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 options were all pitchers—Brad Lincoln (who went fourth to the Pittsburgh Pirates), Andrew Miller (sixth, to the Detroit Tigers) and Tim Lincecum (10th, to the San Francisco Giants)—but Longoria was too good to pass up.
Twenty minutes after he was drafted, Longoria signed a deal that included a $3 million signing bonus. "I didn't want to be one of those guys who sat at home and waited to negotiate for more money," he says. "I had already had three weeks off from baseball, and I was ready to get up and go."
Longoria moved through the Rays' system so quickly in 2006 that it soon became difficult even to arrange a meal with him. "He was playing with Visalia in the [high Class A] 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 [in August]. We're headed down the road, and I called him and said, 'I'm almost there.' He said, 'Man, don't bother. They just promoted me to [Double A] Montgomery, and I'm already in Alabama.'"
Longoria reached Triple A Durham just 14 months after he was drafted, and it was there that he produced his signature minor league moment when he crushed a 1-and-2 pitch onto the street behind the leftfield wall against the Toledo Mud Hens. The blow was estimated to have gone 440 feet. "That was an absolute bomb," recalls Gaetti, his eyes widening. "I'm talking a jungle mash. High and deep—just gone." In his locker Gaetti keeps a copy of the next day's Durham Herald-Sun sports section, which features the Bulls' bench in a front-page photo that was snapped just after Longoria made contact (left). Many of the players have their hands on their heads in amazement; some look almost terrified by the violence they've just witnessed their teammate inflict on the baseball.
IF THERE'S one aspect of Longoria's game that might prevent him from trotting out to third base 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 selection and cutting down my strikeout ratio, and I didn't do as good a job as I wanted to," he says. He struck out 110 times in 136 regular-season games at Double and Triple A.
For Maddon, though, Longoria's adjustment to big league pitching is merely a matter of when, not if. "He's going to hit for a high average; he's going to hit for power; he's going to drive in runs. There's no question."
When Longoria debuts, he could be followed by plenty of reinforcements. The Rays' organization features four other prospects who rank in Baseball Prospectus's top 25: pitchers David Price (No. 6) and Wade Davis (No. 15), outfielder Desmond Jennings (No. 18) and shortstop Reid Brignac (No. 25). Just one other organization—the Cincinnati Reds—has as many as three. "We talk about the opportunities we have here every day," says Brignac, who roomed with Longoria in Montgomery last season. "We love playing together."
With a Longoria-led group of committed, baggage-free youngsters itching to join a solid core of emerging stars that includes Crawford, Upton, first baseman Carlos Pe�a and ace Scott Kazmir, the Rays appear poised to reverse the fortunes of a franchise that has never won more than 70 games (box, above). You might even say that the Rays' future—for real, this time—looks anything but desperate.