Don't rush him: Rays would be wise to send Longoria back to Durham

ST. PETERSBURG

His time is near, on that we can all agree. The tricky part is defining near. If you are Evan Longoria, then opening day sounds like the nearest thing to heaven. If you are a Rays fan, after seeing another Longoria home run on Tuesday, then you probably agree the nearer the better.

But if you are in charge of finessing baseball's future in Tampa Bay, then near can actually mean late April. It can even mean early May. It can mean you are nearer than ever to making an unpopular decision.

Sometime in the next few days the Rays have to choose whether Longoria is going to be their starting third baseman on opening day, or whether he will return to Triple A for another month or two.

Will an extra 100 at-bats in the minors benefit Longoria?

Probably not.

Will that extra time in the minors benefit the Rays?

Immensely.

You see, shipping Longoria back to Durham would certainly not be popular, but keeping him on the opening day roster would probably not be wise.

This is a long-term business decision, pure and simple. No, it is not fair to Longoria. And, no, it is not going to go over well on the airwaves. But it is a fairly logical choice for a team with limited revenues.

There are lots of rules, procedures and technicalities involved, but reducing it to the most basic of truths:

If Longoria is on the roster on March 31, he will probably be eligible for free agency after 2013. If he is in the minors until late April, he won't be a free agent until after 2014.

That means the Rays could either keep Longoria for a month in 2008 when he is just beginning his career and the team is not a contender, or they could hold on to him for an entire season in 2014 when he will be in his prime and the team might just be in better shape to contend.

What would you do?

Look, I'm not trying to be coldhearted. I know perception counts. And the perception will be that the Rays are taking the cheap route once again. But would you rather be called cheap today, or foolish tomorrow?

I also know that even a sound financial decision can carry risks. We've already heard Delmon Young complain about being stuck in the minors for too long — even though he was barely out of his teens — and suggest he would leave town as soon as he reached free agency.

So, yes, the Rays cannot afford to alienate Longoria. If they do send him to Durham, they cannot get cute and try to keep him down until June or July so they can also avoid an extra year of salary arbitration.

At this point, they can at least make the claim that — with only 104 at-bats above Double A — he could use a little extra seasoning. And they can make a pretty convincing argument by pointing at another pair of hot-shot third basemen who came up to the majors last season.

Kansas City's Alex Gordon and Milwaukee's Ryan Braun were both college players taken in the first five picks of the 2005 draft. (Just as Longoria was in 2006.) Both had strong seasons in Double A in 2006 (just as Longoria did in '07) and came to spring training last year with their eyes on making the big-league club.

The Royals kept Gordon on opening day, and he promptly sputtered to a 1-for-24 start. By the end of May, he was hitting .185, and he finished the season at .247 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs.

The Brewers, on the other hand, sent Braun to Triple A for two months. When he was promoted, he tore up the National League, finishing with a .324 average, 34 homers, 97 RBIs and a rookie of the year award.

And, oh, yeah, Gordon will now be a free agent one year before Braun.

Granted, this is not an exact science. Troy Tulowitzki, a former college teammate of Longoria's, was another high draft pick in '05, and the Rockies had him in the majors by the end of '06. The quick ascent didn't seem to hurt because Tulowitzki finished second to Braun for rookie of the year, and the Rockies won the pennant.

The point is there is room for interpretation. There is a legitimate debate worth having.

If the Rays were actually close to contending for a wild card or the AL East title, then you do not worry about what might happen in 2014. You keep the best third baseman on the roster, and you do not look back.

And if the Rays had unlimited resources, and did not have to worry about squeezing their free agents into their payroll, then Longoria heads to Baltimore with the Rays at the end of the spring.

But it's silly to ignore Tampa Bay's realities. Having Longoria for an extra month in 2008 is not going to have a major impact on the season, but having him under contract in 2014 could be a godsend.

Of course, there is another scenario. The Rays could sign Longoria to a long-term deal right now. They probably won't buy out his free-agent seasons, but they could get some cost certainty during his arbitration seasons and they could keep him happy by giving him a big raise today.

One way or another, Longoria's time is near.

Of that, there is no debate.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Don't rush him: Rays would be wise to send Longoria back to Durham 03/18/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2008 6:03pm]

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