TBRecordwRC+SP ERA-RP ERA-DRSUZRBsRPay – $M
2013.564 (9)107 (5)99 (14)93 (16) 8 (14)38 (4)0 (15)75 (25)
2014 .475 (20) 98 (13)94 (7)101 (21)-27 (24)7 (12) 1 (13) 83 (27)
2015 .494 (17)100 (7)94 (6)101 (23)4 (14)22 (6)-16 (28) 60 (29)

 

The Tampa Bay Rays will celebrate their 20th season in 2017, and for much of that history they’ve been defined by their off-field actors: original team owner Vince Naimoli oversaw some very poor teams and alienated any potential fans in the first several years of ownership before being bought out by Stuart Sternberg. Former general manager Andrew Friedman established the process by which the Rays were able to make four postseason appearances in five years, before being wooed by the Los Angeles Dodgers and succeeded in Tampa by Matt Silverman. Hell, even their on-field managers have overshadowed the players – Joe Maddon’s personality and quirks reigned in the clubhouse and, remember, this is the team that traded their All-Star outfielder (Randy Winn) for Lou Piniella (fun Baseball Reference Easter Egg – the transaction on Randy Winn’s page links to Lou Piniella’s player page). There’s even a whole book (a very good one!) written about the Rays front office going from the early days up to 2010.

All of this is to say, the Rays’ “franchise players” have really been executives, front office people, and field managers.

In the Baseball Prospectus 2014 annual, Tampa Bay Rays chapter author R.J. Anderson wrote of the three clocks that then-general manager Andrew Friedman watched constantly:

One counts up, keeping track of David Price’s service time; each tick makes him more expensive. Another counts down from Price’s free agent eligibility; every second makes him less valuable to a potential trade partner. And the final clock – complete with a blurry display, wonky wiring, and uncertain rhythm – predicts when league-wide trends and rules changes will conspire to steal every conceivable advantage that the Rays hold over big market teams.

Friedman did trade Price, the franchise’s first Cy Young Award winner and a primary player in their string of playoff appearances, in mid-2014 to the Detroit Tigers. Also traded, this time after the 2014 season, was Ben Zobrist, the franchise’s 2nd most valuable player all time by WAR, to the Oakland A’s. Left standing on the Rays: the team’s all-time WAR leader, third baseman Evan Longoria.

In truth, the Rays had hitched their wagon to Longoria from almost the moment they called him up to the majors. The Rays made a name for themselves signing young players to contract extensions before their first arbitration season, perhaps the first publicly identified “Rays moneyball.” By doing this the Rays provide their bookkeepers some cost certainty by locking-in a player’s salary figures for up to a 6 year period, and assume only a modest risk – to the tune of less than $20 million, usually, spread out over that time period. The Rays also structured these contracts to include team options on the back end, keeping the player tethered to Tampa at a salary far lower than they would receive on the free agent market (and if a player did not meet expectations, those options could be easily declined). 

After his sixth day in the majors, Longoria signed one of these contracts, one that would guarantee him $17.5 million, and give the team three option years from 2014-2016 at far below market value. The signing was soon seen as a major coup for the famously cash-strapped Rays as Longoria well outperformed this salary, winning Rookie of the Year in 2008, and making three consecutive All Star appearances his first three seasons in the Majors. The Rays found themselves a franchise player, and would have him at rock-bottom prices through 2016 if they picked up all the team options.

Despite some injury issues in 2011 and 2012, the Rays felt confident enough to offer another contract extension, this one for $100 million, which contract guaranteed Longoria’s option years in 2014-2016, and tacked on six additional seasons, plus an option for a seventh.

Longoria signed the deal, and became the undisputed Face of the Rays. As long as injuries aren’t a problem in 2016, Longoria will pass Carl Crawford for most games played with the team, and ranks highly in most offensive categories. However, while the post-2010 Longoria has been a very productive player, he has noticeably declined to the tune of 2-3 wins per season depending on your projection system.

Is the deal, which lasts until at least 2022, still a favorable one for the Rays with Longoria’s anticipated production? To what degree? While most small-market teams are able to handle an extended contract to their franchise player (like Joey Votto on the Reds), can the abnormally cash-deficient Rays handle Longoria’s even slight, reasonable decline? He is the face of the franchise today, but for how much longer?

Tick: Longoria’s diminishing production

This must be said up front: the second extension would be obscenely favorable to most any Major League Baseball team. This would not be a discussion for just about any team that can get their payrolls in the $90 million range, but such a figure would be an all-time high for Tampa. Longoria’s annual salary doesn’t exceed $20 million even in his highest paid campaigns, and even the most aggressive pricing of wins on the open market suggest that Longoria would only need to produce about 2 wins above replacement that season in order tor Tampa to break even, so he is still quite the productive player for his price. However, Longoria has seen a decline in his yearly WAR output since his peak (chart below), and betting on a player over 30 years old to rebuild power numbers probably is seldom a good bet to take. For a team like Tampa that has no margin for error and hasn’t seen payroll go above $77 million in team history, this is certainly something they have noticed.

Evan Longoria WAR

YearAgeSalaryBaseball Prospectus WARPFangraphs WARBaseball-Reference WAR
2016 (proj. value)30$11.5M4.13.7 (Fangraphs Depth Charts)3.3 (ZIPS) // 4.0 (Steamer)
200822$0.5M3.85.64.8
200923$0.55M6.07.17.0
201024$0.95M5.97.58.1
201125$2.0M6.16.37.4
201226$4.5M2.52.22.5
201327$6M6.26.56.2
201428$7.5M4.53.43.3
201529$11.0M4.24.23.2
Evan Longoria's career WAR and salary figures.

 

Tock: Longoria’s diminishing trade value

Dave Cameron wrote in the 2015 edition of his annual Trade Value series:

For years, Evan Longoria ruled this domain, locking up the #1 spot from 2008 through 2011, finally falling to #4 in 2012, #5 in 2013, and #9 a year ago. This year, he headlines the list of guys who remain productive players but have started to reach a point at which they’re more good players than great players, and their prices are no longer so low that they can justify ranking ahead of younger players who can offer similar levels of performance. Longoria’s defense allows him to remain a very good player overall, but he turns 30 in a few months and is finally pulling in some salaries that move the needle a little bit for lower revenue clubs. He’s still clearly worth more than he’s being paid, and will be for several years to come, but Longoria isn’t as great or as cheap as he once was, and so he’s been surpassed by the ridiculous wave of talent that has entered MLB over the last couple of years.

And in Jonah Keri’s trade value rankings for Sports Illustrated:

Evan Longoria (ranked 21 last season) just turned 30, has been a fairly ordinary offensive player the past two years and is no longer cheap.

Perhaps in 2016 he might not even merit an honorable mention. His value plummets upon hitting 5-10 assuming a limited number of teams to which he’s willing to accept a trade, in addition to his declining production since 2013. Do the Rays sell now, thinking he could stagnate or sink lower? Do they wait to see if he rebounds?

Tick: Longoria’s 5-10 rights

Maybe the clock to really be watching is Longoria’s service time. Longoria has been in the Major Leagues since 2008, has accrued 7.170 days of service time (7 years + 170 days), which is TWO DAYS short of 8 years of service time. Come opening day 2018, Longoria will have 9.170 days of service time. Two days later when that clock hits 10.000, if he remains with Tampa his 5-10 rights kick in and he will have the right to veto any trade.

For any team operating on a shoestring budget (and the Rays operate on something smaller than a shoestring budget at times, with limited ability to expand payroll when needed), having a highly paid player with 5-10 rights limits your flexibility – it limits trade partners to the teams that the player will accept a trade to (if any!), limits the return because teams know that there are a limited number of trade suitors, and could lock the original team into that player’s salary for the duration of the contract.

Maybe this isn’t a bad thing! Longoria is the Face of the Franchise after all, and the team cannot afford backlash from their limited fanbase. Flexibility be damned if it comes down to retaining the franchise player, especially at a reasonable cost given the context of the rest of the game. However, it certainly limits what the Rays can do when so much of their payroll is tied up in one player who has to approve any deal.

Boom: Endgame

Of course the Rays want to win, and of course Longoria helps them win. However, at his increasing salary figures, and given the stagnant Rays payroll, he occupies larger and larger percentages of the team’s on-field expenditures. This is not to say that the Rays are thinking about, or should even consider trading Longoria, but it’s not without the realm of reason to believe that it has crossed their minds at some point recently. The Rays do not appear to be a team that leaves stones unturned.

Out On A Limb prediction? Unless a stadium deal is in place by mid-2017 (no guarantee, even though the Rays have been given permission to seek construction sites outside of St. Petersburg), Longoria will be wearing different laundry, putting up slightly above average production for a team that can afford to pay slightly under market value for it. Make way for Chris Archer, Tampa’s new Main Man. For 2016, they’re an 83 win team.

 

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