With due respect to Carl Crawford, David Price, Damian Rolls, and all the other luminaries who've passed through Tampa Bay, Evan Longoria was the face of the franchise.

A miserable, last-place team in 2007, the Rays surged all the way to the World Series the next season, riding Longoria's terrific rookie campaign to glory. Rays management knew what they had from the get-go, working out a handshake deal with Longoria while he was still in the minors that you never saw in baseball: a nine-year contract for a player who hadn't yet made his major league debut.

Longoria officially signed the contract six days into his major league career, launching a decade of dominance: three All-Star appearances, three Gold Gloves, 261 home runs, and a spot in the driver's seat for the most successful stretch in franchise history, which saw Tampa Bay make the postseason four times in six years.

  • 2018 Result: 90-72, third place in AL East
  • Key free agents: Carlos Gomez, Sergio Romo
  • Needs: Starting pitching, relief pitching, DH

So when the Rays traded Longoria to the Giants on Dec. 20 of last year, the fan base was thrown for a loop. Tampa Bay was already coming off a sub-.500 season, turning into one of the dreariest teams in the league and a far cry from their glory days of 2008-2013. Without Longoria, who would be left to root for? What would become of Rays baseball?

That much-panned trade now looks like one of the savviest moves the team has ever made. Already declining at the time the Rays traded him, Longoria slipped to a miserable .244/.281/.413 in 2018. Now 33 years old, he's owed $72.5 million over the next four years, meaning the Rays cleaned up even if the three prospects they acquired for him don't work out. For the single-most budget-conscious team in the game, keeping Longoria's contract would have been a crushing albatross.

Instead, the Rays are better set up than at any point since that six-year peak. They're coming off a 90-win season and four of their projected five rotation members are 27 or younger. Moreover, the Rays carry the cleanest balance sheet in the American League, with only two players signed through 2020, and just one signed beyond that.

Let's start with that 90-win shocker. Left-hander Blake Snell replaced Longoria as the face of the franchise, going 21-5 with a 1.89 ERA and 221 strikeouts, taking home a Cy Young award no one saw coming. What's particularly ironic is that Snell aside, no team deemphasized starting pitching more than the Rays did last year.

Manager Kevin Cash and the team's always innovative front office fired an aggressive "opener" strategy at the rest of the league, with strong results. Rather than search in vain for five starters who could approach 1,000 combined innings, the Rays rode Snell but otherwise had no traditional starter make more than 17 starts. Instead, they used short relievers to pitch an inning or two to start games, then pulled out the early hook. The goal was to flummox opponents by flipping from righties to lefties, flyball pitchers to groundball ones, forcing opposing managers into uncomfortable early game decisions.

And it worked. Would-be staff ace Chris Archer struggled through a third straight season with an ERA over 4.00, injuries and attrition kneecapped the rest of the rotation (other than Snell), and yet the Rays rolled to their best record (and their first above-.500 season) in five years. Tampa Bay complemented their eye-opening pitching results with the sixth-best offense in the majors (park-adjusted). Multiple protagonists lifted the offense, including breakout infielders Willy Adames and Joey Wendle, and outfielder Tommy Pham, who caught fire after coming over in a midseason trade with the Cardinals. Additional upside permeates this young roster too, with promising young outfielder Austin Meadows and strikeout-heaving right-hander Tyler Glasnow two of the better breakout candidates in the league after coming over in a deal with the Pirates last summer for Archer.

Emboldened by that 90-win campaign and freed by their financial maneuvering, the Rays are now attacking hot stove season more aggressively than they have in years. Last week brought the two-year, $30 million signing of Charlie Morton, the late-blooming right-hander who dominated at times for the Astros and will now be counted on for quality innings in his mid-30s. One of the deepest collections of free-agent relievers ever will allow the Rays to wait out the market and hopefully still land a big arm or two for the pen.

Up next could be a trade for a big bat. The Rays engineered a three-team trade with Seattle and Cleveland last week, and rumors have a potential continuation of that trade sending slugger Edwin Encarnacion to Tampa Bay. The Rays reportedly considered dangling top outfield prospect Jesus Sanchez in a trade for All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt before Goldschmidt landed with the Cardinals. And they're now one of six teams said to be in trade talks with the Marlins for J.T. Realmuto, who's emerged as the best all-around catcher in the majors.

Even if Tampa Bay had literally zero dollars committed to anybody, it would still be out of the bidding for turbocharged free agents like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. But if they can pull the trigger to acquire a legitimate star like Realmuto, that would be a whole new look for the Rays.

With the big, bad Yankees and Red Sox looking as big and bad as ever, money-saving trades and clever bullpen usage will only get you so far. Taking the kind of plunge that's unprecedented in franchise history could be the path needed to close the AL East gap.

Jonah on the MLB offseason

NL East
 May be offseason's most compelling team
Marlins: Finding where to send Realmuto
Mets: How Mets could jumpstart BVW era
Phillies: Harper or Machado might not be enough
Nationals: What will the Nats do if Harper leaves?

NL Central
Cubs: Keys to a Cubs rebound in 2019
Reds: Can Cincy revamp its pitching staff?
BrewersWhy Milwaukee should dig deeper in its war chest
PiratesHow Buccos can get aggressive
CardinalsSt. Louis can close the NL Central gap

NL West
DiamondbacksHow drastic will the rebuild be?
RockiesColorado needs bats to match pitching staff
DodgersHow L.A. can spend big this winter 
 San Diego is the biggest mystery team of the offseason
GiantsTrading MadBum and others makes sense

AL East
OriolesNowhere to go but up for new O's leadership
Red SoxActive offseason could lead to World Series repeat
Yankees: Machado fits Yanks' wants and needs