The hardest thing for a baseball team to do is to draft, develop and then keep a franchise talent. Especially when a team is considered a small-market or small-payroll franchise. The Tampa Bay Rays are one of those teams, and have a history of watching their best players (Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, for two) walking in free agency. Well, as of Monday, things have changed. A player who may already be the greatest in Rays history, All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria, signed a huge extension that will keep him in Tampa until 2022 at the earliest.
So, let's talk for just a moment about what a transcendent talent Evan is, then we'll talk cash money.
Evan Longoria burst on to the national scene in 2008 after being drafted third overall in the 2007 Rule 4 Draft out of Long Beach. He basically ran roughshod over the league, en route to a Rookie of the Year selection, an All-Star game appearance, and a .272/.343/.531 triple-slash line in 122 games. Only a few weeks into his major-league career, the Rays and Longoria hammered out a six-year, $17.5 million extension that would eventually become the most team-friendly in the league. And, oh yeah, he hit six home runs in the postseason as the Rays made their first World Series appearance in team history.
The star third baseman followed up the dynamic rookie season by, basically, providing three more seasons of phenomenal performance. That $17.5 million dollars over six years? Well, he was worth that, or more, in EACH of the following 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons. In 2009, Longoria posted career highs in plate appearances (671), runs (100), RBI (113), and home runs (33) -- career highs that still hold up as his best today. In 2010, the counting stats went down, but the OBP went up (.372) and he stole 15 bases. wOBA, a stat that accounts for all aspects of a player's hitting, had him at .376 for the season, only .001 less than his 2009 season, despite pitching skill being up across the league. And 2011 was pretty epic as well, despite Longoria having terrible luck on balls in play and missing a few games with injury. He still managed a .244/.355/.495 triple-slash line and 31 homers, and that would have been quite a bit higher had he not been one of the unluckiest players in baseball during that season.
Longoria's 2012 was easily the worst of his nascent career, and the only season in which he did not receive an MVP vote. Of course, this is because he only played in 74 games, after suffering a debilitating hamstring injury that caused him to miss much of the season. And, according to many advanced metrics like UZR and DRS, Longoria wasn't his usual elite self in the field, during the 50 games he was actually able to man third base. Nevertheless, in the small sample, Longoria put up the best hitting numbers, at least in terms of rates, in his career. A wRC+ of 146 means that Longoria was nearly 50% better than a league-average hitter, and a triple-slash line of .289/.369/.527 is top-shelf.
That's (most of) five seasons of play, but Evan Longoria has already put quite a stamp on the Rays franchise. Make no mistake, Evan Longoria is already a world-class talent at his position. A neat way to see how Evan Almighty stacks up against the all-time greats at the hot corner is through the Hall of Stats, a site dedicated to the creation of an alternative Hall of Fame based on a player's statistical achievements. According to the Hall of Stats, which takes a player's Baseball-Reference WAR and Wins Above Average, adjusts and weights based on season length, league, and position. A Hall Rating of 100 means that a player is worthy of induction to the Hall of Stats, which has the same number of members as the real Hall of Fame.
Evan Longoria, who has only suited up for the Rays since 2008, already has a Hall Rating of 62. Amazingly, Longoria is not all that far away from having a Hall of Fame-caliber career, at least statistically. For a guy with only 637 major league games under his belt, that's pretty phenomenal.
Another way to look at Longoria's statistics is through something called the WAR Index (WARi), a measurement I've developed to compare the disparate Wins Above Replacement numbers developed by the great minds at FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference. My WAR Index is scaled so that, in a given season, a player with 0 WARi is replacement-level, 2 WARi is starting-caliber, 5 WARi is an All-Star, and 8 WARi or more is an MVP candidate.
WARi has Longoria at 27.0 WARi over his first five seasons, which averages out to about 5.4 WARi per season. That means, despite missing more than half the available plate appearances in one season, and missing time due to either injuries (2011) or time in the minors (2008), Longo has still performed at a slightly-above-All-Star level of performance over his first five seasons. In other words, he's not quite 2001-2005 Albert Pujols, but he's also not chopped liver. Longoria's been close to as valuable as Carl Crawford was over his entire career in Tampa, despite playing three-and-a-half fewers seasons in the Trop.
So the Rays have a cornerstone third baseman on the team -- a player with a bat that would play at any position, but who also provides exceptional defense at a critical position. Scouts love him, statheads love him, Rays fans love him. And though he's had a few tough breaks with injury, he's already on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
So signing Evan to a longer extension should have been a no-brainer, right?
The simple answer is yes, and the longer answer is still, probably, yes. But Longoria was on a contract that made the Lousiana Purchase look like a fair deal. Instead of paying minimal salary for a few years, then going through arbitration, the Rays bought out six seasons of Longoria (2008-2013) for the aforementioned $17.5 million. It's not outside the realm of possibility that Longoria could have made that $17.5 million just in arbitration for 2012, but at any rate, it turned out that this deal was a truly unbelievable steal. In addition, the Rays tacked on three club option years, due to pay out another $30 million (plus a few incentives) from 2014-2016. The Rays could have had Longoria locked up through what was likely to be the most productive nine years of his career, for under $50 million dollars. That's two years of Ryan Howard, people.
The new contract has the Rays paying that $47.5 million through 2016, those option years are now picked up. But from 2017 to 2022, the Rays will be on the hook for $100 million more, including a buyout on a 2023 option year. If you average the amount of Longoria's contracts over the fifteen years, it comes out to about $10 million per year over the 15 years. But before the new extension, it was something closer to $47.5 million over nine years, or a little over $5 million. Those last six years will fall during his age-31 through age-36 seasons, which will likely be on the wrong end of the aging curve. One wouldn't really expect that a player, even one of Longoria's skillset, would get better during that part of his career. Power peaks earlier in a player's career, and speed and defense certainly tend to diminish with age.
Honestly, I'm a fan of this deal. I like that the Rays are committing long-term to a player, because usually they're not able to. The team had to bail on Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, and will probably have to do the same with James Shields in the near future. Longoria's probably better than all of those other players, and he's also shown willingness to trade several million dollars for cost certainty.
According to generally-accepted principles of valuing a win, the average value per win above replacement is probably somewhere between $4 and $6 million. If Longoria is able to play at a two-win level over those 2017-2022 seasons, which is pretty likely given his previous levels of performance, he'll probably be worth the annual value of his contract. If he's still producing at a four-win level by 2022, then he'll even be worth the actual dollar value of the last year of that contract.
Thanks to this new extension, Evan Longoria isn't exactly the bargain he used to be. But, at the same time, he's still probably underpaid given his massive talent and track record of success. Evan Longoria on a $5 million per-year contract is flat-out insane, but Evan Longoria on a $10 million per-year contract is just a bit crazy. Both deals will probably work out very well for the Rays, as a talent like Longoria does not come around too often. Even the Rays are willing to make a big investment when it comes to locking up a player like him.