ST. PETERSBURG -- A year ago, Carl Crawford was stuck on the disabled list waiting to see whether he would even return for any part of the regular season after surgery on his right hand.
Today, Tampa Bay's All-Star outfielder would be the first one to tell you about the difference a year makes.
Crawford, a legitimate American League Most Valuable Player candidate, joins teammates Evan Longoria and Jason Bartlett as the Rays' three candidates for this year's Hank Aaron Award. Fans can vote starting Wednesday on which player they think should be the finalist for their club.
Crawford leads baseball in stolen bases (54) and is fourth in the American League in hits (148) in what has so far been a career year for the 28-year-old. He's also hitting .319 with 12 home runs, 58 RBIs, 77 runs and six triples for the Rays and was named the MVP of this year's All-Star Game after making a game-saving catch in left field.
"Carl's just been wanting to become a better baseball player," Rays manager Joe Maddon said earlier this month. "He's been learning on the fly here. He didn't spend a whole lot of time in the Minor Leagues. He got here and he's been successful, he's been an All-Star but it's been primarily based on hitting and flat speed. Now he's becoming a baseball player."
But he's certainly not the only worthy candidate on Tampa Bay's roster. Longoria, in his second season, is second in the AL in RBIs (88) and fifth in extra-base hits (56) on top of 24 home runs, 66 runs and a .529 slugging percentage. He was elected the AL's starting third baseman in the All-Star Game and was recently named the AL's "best defensive third baseman" by Baseball America.
Though he's battled some injuries, including recurring hamstring tightness and a hand injury, Longoria has rediscovered his stroke recently. He's batting .353 during a nine-game hit streak.
"I hit it pretty good," Longoria said after his walk-off home run against the Red Sox on Aug. 5. "I mean, the celebration might have been a little excessive, but I was just happy we won the game and it was over."
Bartlett, once regarded primarily as a defensive specialist, has emerged as one of the AL's best hitters at his position. Batting .342, good for third in the league, he leads baseball with a .430 average with runners in scoring position. The shortstop has a .395 on-base percentage and 56 RBIs despite spending most of the season batting low down in Tampa Bay's order and missing 19 games with an ankle injury.
Bartlett was recently bumped up to the leadoff spot in the Rays' lineup and hasn't disappointed. He's batting .377 with 16 runs and a .449 on-base percentage in 16 games since the switch. He remains a defensive stalwart, recently named the AL's "best defensive shortstop" by Baseball America.
Zach Schonbrun is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.