ST. PETERSBURG — It wasn’t supposed to end like this, with Evan Longoria driving around on a "tough" Wednesday morning figuring out how to say goodbye to Tampa Bay and hello to San Francisco while Rays officials were tepidly trying to explain why they had just traded the best player in franchise history.
When Longoria agreed in November 2012 to sign a second long-term deal at team-friendly terms, the narrative was about the mutual commitment they had made for the next decade, how he never wanted to go anywhere else and how the Rays planned to keep him forever, envisioning the day he would lead them onto the field at their new stadium.
"Somebody we would expect and believe could be a Ray for life,’’ principal owner Stuart Sternberg said that day.
So how did they get to this day, Longoria traded to the Giants, a deal seemingly made much more for the Rays to shed the $86 million remaining on that contract than for the return: a pair of locals — promising infield prospect Christian Arroyo and solid veteran outfielder Denard Span — and two Class A arms.
The Rays got here simply because they didn’t believe they could win in the next few years with Longoria and they had a better chance to do it in the future without him — or at least without his salary drawing off their limited revenue without that new stadium in the works and, in theory, with Arroyo joining their group of potential future impact players.
"We felt that this was in the best long-term interests of our franchise to hopefully point us back toward getting into a World Series, and ideally winning one, sooner rather than later,’’ general manager Erik Neander said. "Our goal is to be more competitive than we’ve been over the last four years here, and for us to be able to do that, we need a very strong core of young major-league players. And one of the pieces we got back in this deal, Christian Arroyo, really fits that bill for us.’’
It was the "incredibly difficult’’ decision Neander described. And it was compounded by Longoria’s benevolence in the Tampa Bay community; his immense popularity with fans; the intangibles, professionalism and leadership he provided in their clubhouse; and all that in addition to his on-field resume as a three-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, lineup anchor since 2008 and author of one of the most thrilling moments in franchise history, the 2011 Game 162 playoffs-clinching walkoff homer.
But still …
"As we look at where we are competitively, the landscape of the American League led to a lot of questions realistically as to where we are heading into 2018,’’ Neander said, acknowledging it will "take a little bit of time" to get back to competing.
After trading their biggest name and best player, the Rays might — and why wouldn’t they? — keep dealing to further reduce their payroll from $80 million and collect more pieces for that future, however many years away it may be.
Closer Alex Colome seems likely to go, if not to the Cardinals, then somewhere. So does one of their top starters, either Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi. And it’s probably not a good idea for catcher Wilson Ramos (owed $10.5 million), outfielder/DH Corey Dickerson (projected at $6.4 million) and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria ($5 million) to look into buying Longoria’s St. Petersburg waterfront house.
And Span — whose $9 million salary and $4 million 2019 option buyout offset saving Longoria’s $13.5 million 2018 salary — shouldn’t plan to spend the whole summer at his Tampa home.
"There’s a lot that’s up in the air at this point. It’s hard to say,’’ Neander said. "When you’re talking about trading Evan Longoria, what that means and taking a talent like that away from our team, that’s not lost on the near-term impact. But there’s a lot of time left, and we are going to continue to explore every opportunity that could be put to us that has a chance to make our organization better.’’
If that sounds like they are headed for a tear down, then you took it the same way as Longoria, who referred Wednesday to their plans to "rebuild from the ground up," to "make some drastic changes," to "go in a different direction.’’
To be clear, Longoria, 32, was agreeable to the decision-making, telling his bosses that if they were going for a massive makeover, he didn’t want to waste his next few seasons being part of it.
"I’m getting to the latter part of my career, and it would be tough for me to sit around and lose 100 games — obviously not saying that happens —but when you go through a rebuild, there’s obviously going to be some tough times,’’ Longoria said. "And I just said that I wasn’t really ready to go through that for the opportunity to maybe have a couple years at the back of my career where we have a chance to compete in the division again.’’
Easing some anguish for the Rays was Longoria going along with the plan, saying he didn’t "blame" them, and thanking them for keeping him informed and sending him to what he considers a good situation (albeit with hefty state income taxes).
But they likely would have dealt him anyway because in April he gained no-trade rights (by being in the majors 10 years and with the same team for five), with the Marlins debacle in dealing Giancarlo Stanton being prime evidence of why.
As it is, it’s costing the Rays goodwill among fans, many of whom expressed their outrage on social media, and less obviously with their remaining big-money players, who are now wondering who is next. Also, the Rays’ overall financial savings were abated by having to kick in $14.5 million to cover some of Longoria’s deferred salary, plus a $2 million trade bonus. Counting Span’s money, their net savings is $60.5 million.
Had Longoria not signed the second contract, for six years at $100 million, things would have been different. He would have left as a free agent after 2016 or have been dealt before that. But he did sign, expecting a trade never to be even considered, and it turned out unexpectedly anyway.
"I obviously have always wished that they would decide to commit to adding to the roster and trying to contend year in and year out,’’ Longoria said. "I understand that that’s not the way the organization has done it historically. So, yeah, there is a part of me that is let down by that. But it’s been the way that it’s been as long as I’ve been here. So I guess it’s not too much of a surprise.’’
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.