AL Rookie of the Year: Longoria lives up to hype

Here's a shocker: Evan Longoria is the American League Rookie of the Year.

Thinking back, there weren't many days all calendar year Longoria wouldn't have been called the odds-on favorite: Not on New Year's Day, not on the day he reported to spring training, not on March 20, not at the All-Star break, not on Aug. 1, and certainly not on Sept. 30, the final day of baseball's regular season.

Fact is, he was baseball's and fantasy's ultimate 2008 wunderkind, an expected star from Day 1 of his big-league career, and every bit that today, coming off his spectacular postseason. Even better: Slash the "N" from his name and now you've got yourself a superstar from the TV world. (Talk about fantasy!)

Yes, Longoria did it all for his fantasy owners. He fell right in line with ESPN's projections: A .272 batting average (projected .275), 27 home runs (22) and 85 RBIs (99), and he even contributed a healthy handful of stolen bases, with a respectable seven.

Want some criticism? You won't find much here, and much of what you will find is a knock on how his team manages payroll with young players.

Unbelievably, Longoria wasn't even the Rays' third baseman on Opening Day. Projected all spring to break camp with the team, the Rays -- perhaps hoping to keep his arbitration clock in check -- instead optioned Longoria to Triple-A to begin the season. Willy Aybar, who later in the year wound up a valuable bench piece for the Rays, got the start in Baltimore on March 31 but hit the disabled list a little more than a week later. Longoria wound up making his major league debut on April 12, a full 12 days later than expected, and never looked back. If you drafted him, you had to be patient; had you cut him, you'd have been smarting ... by Week 3 of the fantasy season!

Longoria also missed more than a month with a fractured wrist, from early August through mid-September. When he returned, he tended to swing for the fences a bit more than before; counting his postseason exploits, he belted 11 home runs in 129 at-bats ... but struck out 40 times and batted .217. (You might have noticed a similar pattern in some of those World Series games?) It'll be something he'll need to address come next spring, though chances are a hitter this talented can get himself straightened out.

Hardly significant knocks, right?

Looking ahead to 2009, barring the dreaded "sophomore slump," Longoria should only get better from here. If you look back to his 2008 draft-day status and final-season rankings, he was the No. 16 third baseman off the board in ESPN live drafts, and finished No. 14 on the Player Rater at his position (though Russell Martin and Mark DeRosa clearly were players owners would have used at their primary positions). Apparently fantasy owners heeded our advice not to overdraft the guy, citing Alex Gordon's rookie year as an example. Longoria nevertheless succeeded where Gordon failed the year before.

It's that Player Rater number that's most interesting; take out the three players who will no longer qualify there in 2009 (Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera and Martin), and Longoria is 11th based on 2008 numbers. Chances are, coming off his postseason power surge -- he hit six homers with 13 RBIs -- and now this Rookie of the Year award, he'll be a little overrated in redraft leagues. Ryan Braun might be the player frequently hailed in comparison, but put Braun's 2007 campaign alongside Longoria's 2008 and it's an unfair one:

Braun: 113 G, 451 ABs, .324 BA, 34 HRs, 97 RBIs, 1.004 OPS
Longoria: 122 G, 448 ABs, .272 BA, 27 HRs, 85 RBIs, .874 OPS

Braun was the 13th player selected overall on average in ESPN live drafts heading into 2008, so don't be so hasty as to declare Longoria a certain second-rounder. More likely, he'll rank somewhere in the No. 50-overall range, akin to where guys like Garrett Atkins and Robinson Cano were picked this past season. That might not sound like a generous ranking, but it is; 23-year-old sluggers with one season's experience are rarely so esteemed.

Of course, in keeper leagues, the sky's the limit. If he's generating second- or third-round interest across the board, that might be the one place he'll be a proper value!

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.