Evan Longoria Extension: Rays Pick a Bad Time To Go All-In on Star Third Baseman

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Evan Longoria Extension: Rays Pick a Bad Time To Go All-In on Star Third Baseman
J. Meric/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays caught the baseball world totally off-guard when they signed then-rookie third baseman Evan Longoria to a contract extension just a few days into his major league career in 2008.

On Monday, the Rays did it again.

Out of nowhere, the team announced that Longoria has signed a new contract extension that could keep him in Tampa Bay through the 2023 season. As part of the deal, the three club options the Rays held for Longoria in 2014, 2015 and 2016 become guaranteed, and he is signed for an additional six years from 2017 to 2022 at $100 million with a club option for 2023.

Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman is confident that the club has done the right thing, saying (per MLB.com):

Evan has all of the attributes we seek in a player. His determination and work ethic inspire others around him. He is devoted to his craft and strives to improve himself every year, and he defines success in terms of team performance and achievement. It's exciting to know that Evan will be manning third base for the Rays for many years to come.

I won't dispute any of this. Longoria is a true star player when he's healthy, and he's clearly the heart and soul of the Rays. Without him, they'd be lost at sea without a paddle.

I only have one question: Why now?

There was no hurry for the Rays to extend Longo. He was due to make a mere $6 million in 2013, a huge bargain for an MVP-caliber third baseman. His club option for 2014 was for a mere $7.5 million, yet another huge bargain. His options for 2015 and 2016 were for $11 million and $11.5 million.

So over the next four seasons, the Rays could have paid Longoria just $36 million, an average of $9 million per year. With their careful maneuvering back in 2008, the Rays had not set themselves up to be dealing with a potential problem contract.

But things are a little different now that they're wedded to Longoria for at least another decade. His deal could very easily become a problem contract.

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
Longo never looked 100-percent healthy even after he returned from his hamstring injury in August.

The key concern right now, obviously, is Longoria's recent injury history. He missed 26 games in 2011 with an oblique strain, and he missed 85 games this past season with a serious hamstring injury. Even after he returned, he had to spend a good chunk of time in the DH spot in Joe Maddon's lineup.

If Longoria isn't injury-prone already, he's certainly knocking on the door of being injury-prone. And if his injury woes in 2011 and 2012 are indeed a sign of things to come, then guaranteeing Longo's three option years and signing him up for another $100 million from 2017-2022 could easily come back to bite the Rays.

To be sure, it is possible to rationalize this deal. As Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLBTradeRumors.com pointed out, the Rays did the same thing with Longoria that the Washington Nationals did with Ryan Zimmerman last February. He was fresh off an injury-plagued season, but the Nats locked him up through 2019 with an option for 2020 at an even $100 million. Though he had to deal with a shoulder problem for much of the season, Zimmerman ended up having a good year in 2012.

You could also point to the fact that the Rays may have done themselves a favor by choosing to sign Longoria before David Wright signed his next contract. Had they waited until after Wright signed, the market for star third basemen could have been set at a level too high for the Rays to afford. 

And yes, you could also point to the fact that salaries are on the rise across baseball largely because the amount of TV money being pumped into the league is on the rise. The new national deals that MLB recently signed with ESPN and with Turner Sports and Fox could give each of the league's 30 teams as much as $50 million per year, according to Forbes.

When you consider the fact that the Rays' payroll has tended to hover between $40 and $60 million, that's a pretty significant amount of TV money coming their way. Longoria's deal is one they'll be able to afford.

But don't take this to mean that Longoria's contract can't possibly become an albatross contract. That's exactly what it will become if his injury problems persist, in which case he'll effectively become the Rays' very own Eric Chavez.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
And the Rays surely don't want their own Alex Rodriguez.

There's also the reality that the Rays will be paying Longoria close to $17 million per year when he'll be progressing towards his late 30s (he'll be 37 when the contract expires). He could break down well before the end of his contract is near, in which case the Rays will have their very own Alex Rodriguez.

The TV money the Rays are set to receive will make Longo's deal easier to bear if he does turn into a shell of his former self, but it's hard to imagine it becoming a mere minor inconvenience for them given their restricted capacity to generate their own revenue. They may never get a local TV contract that will rival those of baseball's richest teams, and attendance at Tropicana Field is an ongoing problem.

According to ESPN.com, the Rays finished dead-last in attendance in 2012, and it was just a couple years ago that Longoria himself was calling out Rays fans for not showing up to watch the team during a pennant race. 

It's true that Tropicana Field itself is the main problem, as it's a terrible place to watch a ballgame. A new stadium is clearly needed, and sooner rather than later.

And thanks to the Miami Marlins, the thought of a new stadium for the Rays may be a pipe dream. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com recently noted that the thinking around the league is that the Rays stand little chance of getting a new ballpark after the bait-and-switch the Marlins just pulled after opening their new stadium in 2012.

So the Rays may be wedded to the Trop for a while still, meaning that they'll have to continue to rely on TV money to form the basis for their payroll. That will keep a cap on it, and this could prove problematic in regards to the team's other stars.

Case in point, you have to wonder if an extension for David Price is at all possible now that the Rays have chosen to extend Longoria. Price is due to hit free agency after the 2015 season, and he stands a good chance of becoming the richest pitcher in the game. 

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Is there still room in Tampa Bay for David Price, or is he as good as gone?

It was hard enough to see the Rays extending Price before. Now that they've committed to Longoria, committing to Price may be altogether impossible. 

It feels like nothing is ever set in stone where the Rays are concerned, but you got the sense that things were even less set in stone than usual before Longo signed his latest contract extension. That may have been their motivation in choosing to sign him now, as they could have felt that the club needed at least one rock to lean on for the foreseeable future.

The contract he signed is certainly a team-friendly deal in the grand scheme of things, but there's no denying that it may end up costing the Rays some flexibility in the future. They now have to work around Longoria for the next decade, whereas before they could have parted ways with him rather easily in the next few years if it became obvious that was the best course of action.

What the Rays could have done instead is wait to see in 2013 if Longoria was still capable of staying healthy for a full season, all while paying him just $6 million. If he proved he could stay healthy, that's when they could have moved to extend him again. 

In this scenario, a new deal for Wright could have come into play and upped Longo's price tag to over $17 million per year between 2017 and 2022. But while the price would have surely been higher, the Rays could have been comfortable paying it knowing that Longo's injury-plagued seasons in 2011 and 2012 were flukes.

Right now, the Rays are effectively gambling on Longo's recent injury problems in 2011 and 2012 turning out to be flukes, and they're also gambling on his new deal not getting in the way of any other plans they may have.

Again, it's not a bad a deal, and time could most certainly prove them wise. But given the timing of the deal, it's just as possible that time could prove them foolish.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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