We should have seen the Evan Longoria trade coming. Years ago.
Nov. 26, 2012, to be precise. That was the day the Rays announced they had signed their third baseman to a six-year, $100 million contract extension.
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg called Longoria “somebody we would expect and believe could be a Ray for life.”
Philadelphia had Mike Schmidt. Baltimore had Cal Ripken. Kansas City had George Brett.
It seemed as if fans in Tampa Bay would have Evan Longoria. A player they could claim as theirs and theirs alone.
There was something during that celebration, though, that should have tipped us off that “Ray for life” was an aspiration and not a certainty.
Sternberg, a former Goldman Sachs partner, talked about the team’s “astoundingly big commitment” and its need to find new streams of revenue.
“If by the end of this contract we’re not (in a new stadium), it’s not going to work out well,” he said.
And in that moment, “Ray for life” became “Ray for, well, we’ll have to see.”
The end of Longoria’s contract: 2022. Sternberg’s estimate for planning and building a ballpark: five years.
We’re days away from 2018. Hillsborough County has pitched a site, but without a financing plan in place, we’re a long way from seeing a baseball diamond in Ybor City.
The math, as it turns out, didn’t work. So the Rays traded their franchise cornerstone last week to the San Francisco Giants for promising infielder Christian Arroyo, veteran outfielder Denard Span and minor-league pitchers Matt Krook and Stephen Woods.
It was painful.
But it was time.
The Rays won’t contend for a playoff spot in 2018. More trades are coming.
Continuing to employ Longoria would have served little purpose. At 32 years old, he wasn’t going to add very many meaningful wins. That’s not to say he was going to be bad. He just wasn’t going to walk out of the dugout with his bat and glove from 2009. That bat and glove, by the way, cost only $625,000 then.
Perhaps he would have added some sentimental value, but what exactly does anyone gain from that? If we’re brutally honest about it, Longoria’s departure isn’t going to significantly affect ticket sales. Even when he was here, the Rays didn’t draw. The average crowd last season: 15,670, the lowest in baseball.
Pining for the past wasn’t going to help the present and was only going to hinder the future. Look at the arcs of the Phillies and Tigers. In the past decade, both organizations tried to squeeze another playoff run or two out of aging cores. Both almost lost 100 games last season.
Look, too, at the Giants, Longoria’s new team. They lost 98 games but are trying to stave off a rebuild. They might rebound some, but they soon will have to confront the same truth that the Phillies and Tigers had to confront.
The Rays? They haven’t won more than 80 games since 2013. That’s four straight losing seasons.
It’s better, they say, to be too early than too late. In the Rays’ case, they can’t afford to be too late. Not when they’re hoping to move to a new stadium. There’s never a good time to embark on a rebuild, but the absolute worst time is when a team has opened a stadium. That’s a prime opportunity to grow a fan base. Holding a fire sale then can feel like an act of betrayal. (Hi, Miami.)
Say the Rays had kept Longoria and found a few free-agent bargains. Such an approach wasn’t going to help them surge past the Yankees and Red Sox to the top of the AL East. Yes, prospects like pitcher Brent Honeywell, shortstop Willy Adames and first baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers are on their way, but they could be years from having the type of impact that transforms the Rays into a perennial contender.
In the meantime, Longoria would have gained veto power over any trade. That, in combination with a likely decline in performance, would have substantially undercut the Rays’ leverage in trade negotiations. They would have had to settle for lesser players, and therefore, fewer future wins. That’s not an advantage they can surrender if they are to compete with their big-budget division rivals.
Given Sternberg’s estimate for planning and building a ballpark, a Longoria trade was inevitable. By doing it this offseason, they got a respectable return and gained financial flexibility. That doesn’t mean much now, but it could prove valuable as they look to retain and supplement their next young core of players.
The Rays weren’t going to be compelling this season, but they might be just in time for the debut of a stadium.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.