- In an attempt to bolster one of the league's worst offenses, the Giants acquired third baseman Evan Longoria from the Rays.
Through these topsy-turvy times, we’ve always been able to count on a few things. Death is inescapable; puppies are adorable; and Evan Longoria will rake in Tampa Bay despite never posting an OPS above .900. Well, death and dogs continue, but Longoria’s time in Florida has surprisingly come to an end. On Wednesday, the Rays dealt the veteran third baseman to the Giants for a four-player package headlined by centerfielder Denard Span and infield prospect Christian Arroyo. The trade ends Longoria’s decade-long tenure as the best player in Tampa’s short franchise history, as San Francisco makes a bid to return to contention (or at least relevance) by taking a risky bet on a solid but aging star.
The 32-year-old Longoria is the picture of reliability and durability: He’s played at least 122 games every year but 2012, when he missed half the season with a hamstring strain, and has posted an OPS of .840 or better every season but two. Unfortunately for him and possibly the Giants, one of those seasons was 2017, when he slumped to a .261/.313/.424 line; his resulting 100 OPS+ was the lowest mark of his career, and his 20 homers were his fewest ever in a full season. Longoria’s still-strong defense (+11 Defensive Runs Saved and his third Gold Glove) kept his WAR respectable at 3.6, but that kind of offensive slide is worrisome for a player well into his 30s.
The underlying peripherals aren’t too sunny either. Longoria’s ground-ball rate skyrocketed, going from 31.9% in 2016 to 43.4% in ’17, which killed his extra-base hit rate and home-run rate. His performance against fastballs cratered, going from a .318 batting average and .682 slugging percentage in ’16 to .265 and .412, respectively, last season. And his average exit velocity on balls dropped from 90.7 mph in ’16 to 86.7 mph last year. None of those are be-all/end-all stats, but they suggest that Longoria simply wasn’t squaring up balls or hitting them hard—and that when he did get a hold of a pitch, he topped it straight into the dirt.
The truly scary number going forward, though, is Longoria’s salary: He still has five years and $87 million to go on the six-year extension he signed all the way back in 2012—a deal that didn’t kick in until his then-contract expired after the ’16 season. At the time, $100 million for Longoria must have looked like a steal. But since signing it, he’s posted a cumulative .265/.325/.457 line with a 116 OPS+— decidedly pedestrian numbers for that kind of investment. For the small-market Rays, the idea of shelling out another $87 million for a 32-year-old player with sagging stats must have caused some upset stomachs, franchise legend or not.
That’s a risk the Giants are willing to take, and it’s easy to understand why. Calling third base a black hole for San Francisco is an insult to black holes; the team’s collective line at the position in 2017 was a putrid .216/.268/.300, all of which were far and away the worst in baseball. Nine different players took turns at the hot corner in the Bay Area last season, and with the exception of Eduardo Nuñez, who was productive before being dealt to Boston in August, all were awful. Given a 2018 depth chart of Arroyo, the decrepit Pablo Sandoval, bespectacled utility infielder Kelby Tomlinson, and prospect Ryder Jones, acquiring a third baseman was a screaming need for the Giants, and Longoria represents a dramatic upgrade over the in-house solutions almost no matter what he does next year.
Was Longoria the right call, though? The options in free agency are unappealing: Mike Moustakas (lots of power but little else), Todd Frazier (the older, cheaper Moustakas), and Nuñez are the best of a shaky lot. It’s easy to understand why the Giants didn’t feel comfortable committing multiple years and millions of dollars to anyone in that group. And while his offense may be declining, Longoria, at the very least, is durable and a good defender—a big improvement for a Giants team that lost virtually everyone to injury last year and, aside from Brandon Crawford at shortstop and Buster Posey behind the plate, was a mess with the gloves.
But Longoria’s contract and age make him a potential land mine for San Francisco. Dealing away Span’s money—$11 million next year and a $12 million team option for 2019 with a $4 million buyout—helps offset some of Longoria’s cost, but we’re still talking about taking on an additional $72 million over the next five years for a team that spent $191 million to lose 98 games last season and is on the hook for at least $175 million in 2018. And a lot of that money is tied up in veterans who, like Longoria, are wading deeper into their 30s: Brandon Belt (30 next season), Posey (31), Crawford (31), Johnny Cueto (32), Jeff Samardzija (33), Mark Melancon (33), and Hunter Pence (35) will earn a combined $128.9 million this coming year. There’s no salary relief in sight, either: With Longoria now on board, the Giants have $132.9 million committed in '19, $129.4 million in '20 and $94.1 million in '21 (to just five players!)—and after the '19 season, they’ll have to free up some cash to pay free-agent-to-be Madison Bumgarner, currently working on a dirt-cheap contract ($12 million in both 2018 and '19).
Virtually none of those big contracts are movable, particularly in a day and age when teams are terrified of surpassing the luxury tax threshold. The Giants do have room to make moves even after adding Longoria’s money, but they’re right up against their limit and still have holes to fill in the outfield, rotation and bullpen. So while Longoria will make them better in 2018, it will come at a significant financial (and potentially opportunity) cost. San Francisco may have been better off going cheaper, younger or shorter at the position instead of taking a short-term upgrade that carries significant long-term complications. (Not to mention that trading Arroyo, one of the team’s top prospects, further weakens a bad farm system and eliminates a cost-effective option under 30 years old.)
For Tampa fans, meanwhile, the loss of Longoria has to be crushing for those who watched him take the team to unforeseeable heights and likely hoped he’d retire a Ray. But what’s worse for those supporters is that his departure is a flashing neon sign that the Rays, long the pipsqueak financially in the behemoth AL East, are planning to take a step back in the division as the Yankees and Red Sox flex their might. With Longoria gone, expect Tampa to get aggressive about moving closer Alex Colome, starter Jake Odorizzi, and—most intriguing of all—staff ace Chris Archer. He would bring a potentially franchise-altering haul back in prospects if the Rays decide to move him, and could easily shift the balance of power for whichever contender—the Dodgers, Brewers, and Yankees immediately jump to mind—could land him.
For now, Tampa will take on Arroyo (a solid bat whose defensive position is still to be determined), probably try to dump Span’s contract on someone else, and man the phones to see what else of the roster can be moved. But while plenty of other players will change addresses this winter, there may be no stranger sight next spring than Longoria putting on orange and black. Nothing can last forever, I suppose.