is the first player in Rays
history to receive a nine-figure contract. (Kim Klement/US Presswire)
When the wisdom of locking up young players with long-term deals years before they even hit arbitration is discussed, Evan Longoria is often Exhibit A. Just a week into his major league career in 2008, the Rays' third baseman — who had come into the year ranked as the number two prospect according to Baseball America — inked a six-year, $17.5 million deal. Not only has that turned out to be an incredible bargain for Tampa Bay, but even with an escalator clause and three club options tacked on for 2014-2016, the nine-year package still cost an extremely reasonable $45 million, making it the most team-friendly contract in the game. Now the Rays have more than doubled down, signing Longoria to a six-year, $100 million extension that runs from 2017-2022, his age 36 season — with a club option for 2023, just in case.
It's an exceptionally risk-averse move on the part of Longoria, who will never get to the open market during his prime, depriving him of a much larger total haul over the course of his career. On the other hand, it's a shrewd move by the Rays, who have to mind every penny they spend. They'll get to continue building around a face-of-the-franchise star who's a standout on both offense and defense. While the deal doesn't contain a no-trade clause that would prevent Longoria from being dealt in the event the Rays need to enter a rebuilding phase, it's a stark contrast to the way the state's other team, the mismanaged mess that is the Miami Marlins, conducts its business.
Longoria's recent past may hint at his reason for risk aversion. An oblique injury cost him a month early in the 2011 season, while a hamstring strain cost him more than three months in 2012. Across the two seasons, he played in just 207 out of 324 games, and his absence almost certainly cost his team a postseason spot this past year; the Rays were 47-27 when he played, and 43-45 when he didn't. Back in September, he recounted a conversation with teammate Matt Moore, like Longoria a highly-touted prospect whom the Rays signed to a club-friendly extension early in his rookie season:
“I told him, ‘Dude, you made a great decision — don’t let anybody tell you you did wrong… You could go down a long list of guys who decided to hold off or not sign that long-term deal that’s going to give them security for a long time, and they ended up getting hurt or not having the year or two they thought they were going to have, and that contract went away."
Even so, Longoria will make just $6 million in 2013, and there's no reason to think his $7.5 million 2014 option was in jeopardy of being declined, because it's an outstanding bargain. His 2014 and 2015 ones ($11.0 and $11.5 million, respectively) figure to be as well given his established level of performance. Despite his injuries (which also include a month lost to a wrist fracture in 2008), he has been the fourth-most valuable position player during that span according to Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement, and he's made less money than anyone else in the top 10:
|Rk||Player||WAR||Ages||Tot. Salary||Current Deal|
|1||Albert Pujols||35.4||28-32||$69.4||10 yr/$240 through 2021|
|2||Ryan Braun||30.2||24-28||$13.1||13 yr/$150 through 2020 + mutual opt.|
|3||Chase Utley||29.1||29-33||$64.6||7 yr/$85 mil through 2013|
|4||Evan Longoria||28.5||22-26||$8.0||15 yr/$145 through 2022 + club opt.|
|5||Adrian Beltre||28.0||29-33||$64.8||5 yr/$80 through 2015 + vesting opt.|
|6||Dustin Pedroia||27.9||24-28||$19.7||6 yr/$40.5 through 2014 + club opt.|
|7||Ben Zobrist||27.3||27-31||$10.4||4 yr/$18 through 2013 + club opt.|
|8||Miguel Cabrera||27.3||25-29||$86.7||8 yrs/$152.3 through 2015|
|9||Joey Votto||26.2||24-28||$18.3||13 yrs/$263 through 2023 + club opt.|
|10||Robinson Cano||25.1||25-29||$42.0||6 yrs/$57 through 2013|
Longoria is the youngest player in that group and the only one among them to make less than $10 million so far; even teammate Zobrist, who's been almost as valuable in terms of WAR, has made more. Considered in the context of recent club-friendly extensions signed by Braun and Votto, Longoria will receive a lower average annual salary, and the same is true when he's compared to Troy Tulowitzki (13 years and $163 million through 2020, plus a club option) and Ryan Zimmerman ($11 years, $135 million through 2019 plus a club option)
Compare Longoria's earnings to those of Beltre, who reached the majors with the Dodgers at 19 in mid-1998 and became a free agent after a monster age 25 season in 2004 (48 homers, 9.3 WAR). In his six full seasons with the Dodgers, he made $14.0 million, then signed a five-year, $64 million deal with the Mariners, a one-year, $10 million deal with the Red Sox (to boost his value after a down 2009), and a five-year, $80 million deal with the Rangers, one that includes a $16 million vesting option for the sixth year. That non-guaranteed year aside, his total earnings through his age 36 season will be $168 million, compared to $145 million for Longoria.
During Beltre's career, the average annual inflation of baseball salaries (based on team Opening Day payrolls via USA Today's salary database) has been 7.4 percent, compared to 1.9 percent for Longoria, who began his big league career in the midst of a financial crisis. If we project annual inflation going forward at an average of 3.3 percent, Beltre would have enjoyed average annual salary inflation of 5.4 percent over the life of his contract. If Longoria had simply enjoyed that same inflationary rate over the course of his career, his $145 million salary would have been worth $230 million, which demonstrates that while Longoria may be a more valuable player than Beltre — whose best five-year span has been worth 28.0 WAR, but whose early years were worth considerably less — he will have operated in a significantly lower period of salary inflation, with Beltre earning sigificantly more over the life of the two players' contracted careers.*
Obviously, that's an incredible discount for the Rays, provided Longoria stays healthy and productive, which is no small assumption. A quick look at the list of players on contracts worth more at least $100 million brings to mind several unhappy tales, many of them still in the making: Alex Rodriguez, Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford, Todd Helton, Johan Santana, Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells, Barry Zito, Ryan Howard, Mike Hampton, Jason Giambi . . . and so on. All of those deals covered older players — virtually all of whom had already peaked — being paid higher average annual salaries than Longoria. While his new extension will kick in after his age 31 season, $100 million in 2017-2022 dollars is a whole lot less than the $100 million of Carlos Lee's just-expired 2007-2012 deal, to use a convenient example of a bad contract for a player who decidedly did not age well. It's also a ton less money than the seven-year, $142 million deal which Crawford left the Rays to sign following the 2010 season, a pact which Longoria might have topped had he ever reached free agency during his peak years.
Longoria's deal wouldn't be possible without the groundwork laid by the Rays front office. The team has reached the playoffs in three of the five years he's been with the club, and compiled the game's third-best winning percentage (.565) during that span, behind the Yankees (.591) and Phillies (.574). They've done all of this despite ranking among the majors' six lowest payrolls in four of those five seasons, and in the bottom half in all five. Aided by years of high draft spots — eight top-three picks from 1999-2008, including four overall number ones — due to their poor records, they've built one of the game's top player development systems, one that has continued to hum along since they've begun winning, though graduations to the majors have taken their toll recently. They have gotten even more bang for their buck by signing players such as Longoria, Zobrist, Moore, Price and James Shields to some of the game's most club-friendly contracts, buying out arbitration and free agent eligibility years at a discount, and letting free agents such as Crawford and B.J. Upton depart before becoming drags on the payroll, if not outright busts.
Compare Tampa Bay's strategy with that of the Marlins, who have just undergone a massive payroll purge after a winter of exorbitant free agent spending followed by a 69-93 record and the worst attendance for a first-year ballpark since 2000. One team bilked taxpayers into footing the bill for a new stadium but can't afford the players whom it bought at the top of the market, or even the key ones whose less expensive years it has just enjoyed, and it hasn't made the playoffs in nine seasons. The other is stuck in one of the game's worst ballparks, with similarly low attendance, yet it has not only been to the playoffs multiple times but has locked up its franchise-type players at low costs for future runs, and hasn't burned any bridges with their fan base.
While the Longoria deal is a risk, the Rays strategy is a sound one. At least one team in Florida understands baseball's finances.