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Life after Evan Longoria for Rays? Something to talk about

PORT CHARLOTTE -- It's a safe­ -- okay, we'll just go ahead and say it -- bet that Pete Rose has had hunches that haven't played out.

But sitting in the Ted Williams Museum at the Trop a couple weeks ago, baseball's most prolific hitter, well-known gambler and hot-take TV talker, said Evan Longoria deserves better than playing out the rest of his career with the Rays.

"He's the type of guy you'd rather see -- maybe I shouldn't say this -- on a really, really good team," Rose said. "Guys like Evan should be in the playoffs, in the World Series. You've got the best players in the game, you want them to be in front of the national media, putting their talents on display. ...

"I don't want to say Tampa's not a great city because I got my start here, but it's a small city compared to the press. So a lot of people don't know about Longoria that should know about him. They don't want to hear that here, that they should lose him. But I'd rather if he was on the Yankees or on the Cubs or someone like that. ... A big market."

With the Rays posting three straight losing seasons, limited in improvements due to a payroll budget tied to majors-worst attendance, and no pot-of-gold stadium solution at least in public sight, Rose isn't the only one making that pitch.

And when you factor in that Longoria, at age 31, is just this season starting the six-year, $100-million extension (with a 2023 option) he agreed to during the glory days of four playoff appearances in six years, the question of whether the Rays would trade their franchise player is becoming an increasingly popular subject of speculation.

There is chatter from execs around the game, players with other teams, national media and even within the Rays clubhouse.

"You wonder that," said veteran starter Alex Cobb, likely headed for a trade himself in his free-agent year. "Just because there have been guys here that are the face-of-the-franchise type guys that, granted they didn't have as big and as long-term a contract that he does, but I don't think you can ever handcuff the Rays in any way just because of the way they have to do things.

"I feel like that guy is what you build a team around. ... Second to his performance is his leadership ability. He's just a professional in everything he does. ... It would be sad to see for the franchise if they did have to feel like they need to make that move."

It needs to be noted that the Rays have not and don't have, from what we know, plans to shop Longoria. Also, that Longoria, entering his 10th season, hasn't talked about the possibility except when asked, nor, he says, given it much thought.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) warms up before the start of the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017.

"I really don't even try to think about it or want to think about it," he said.

What he has made clear, consistently, is that he has no interest in leaving, doesn't long for a bigger market or better team, relishes the idea of spending his entire career as a Ray.

Also, that he wants badly to win -- having already accrued fame and fortune but lacking the championship he covets.

"From the time Andrew (Friedman, former baseball operations chief) was here and I decided to sign the extension and every year forward, the words that I've said to now Matt (Silverman, who replaced Friedman) and Erik (Neander, now the GM) and the front office is that I want to win," Longoria said.

"This has been my home. I have not thought of going anywhere else. The city and the team and everybody has been great to me. And I love being here. But I love winning more. And that's the simple answer."

Are those mutually exclusive thoughts?

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The Rays are finding it more difficult to repeat their 2008-13 success given the widening spread between small- and large-revenue teams. Rather than take advantage of depressed free-agent prices to make significant additions, they focused their busy off-season as much or more on the future, including a trade of second baseman Logan Forsythe that drew uncharacteristically open criticism from Longoria.

Even the most optimistic assessments of their chances to contend this season, including Longoria's own, acknowledge they need almost everything to go right.

Still, Longoria says he keeps the faith.

"I believe that we can win here," Longoria said. "And I believe that they are committed to doing that. We have to do that within the framework of what we've always worked in. We've been able to do it in the past, so that continues to lead me to believe that it can happen in the future."

Maybe it can, as the Rays integrate what (finally) looks to be a promising crop of position player prospects around Longoria, and he becomes the veteran centerpiece of a team that returns to prominence, perhaps as it moves into a new stadium.

Or maybe they decide otherwise.

From ownership down, the Rays always treated Longoria as a franchise player and de facto captain, respectful of his commitment in signing his first long-term deal as a rookie in 2008, then the extension in 2012.

They also pride themselves in being creative and forward thinkers, willing to consider any idea, and never deeming anyone truly untouchable.

You could see them deciding that the combination of the potential return for Longoria, especially if he repeats his impressive 2016 campaign, and the savings of shedding his contract provides a more valuable calculus.

And you could see them saying they were doing it for Longoria, that they realized they were better off building, or rebuilding, with the young core, and wanted to give him a chance to win that championship somewhere.

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Depending how this season unfolds, the speculation may increase, as the Rays could be driven to decide before next April, when Longoria gets the slight leverage of the no-trade clause they would never willingly grant that comes with 5-and-10 rights (five years with one team, 10 in the majors), meaning he can veto (or seek to be compensated for approving) any deal.

Or maybe they wait until after there is an agreement to build a new stadium, knowing they could fold the PR hit for seemingly salary-dumping their best player into the narrative of the bright future.

As much as Longoria doesn't want to talk or think about it, he is sharp and aware enough to process the scenarios laid out for him. His hope, he reiterates, is that he plays well for the six (or seven) years remaining on his contract, that the team wins again, and everyone feels it was a great deal.

What he will say, for now, is this:

"Ultimately if I had to give you an answer, I'm pretty sure it would come from them. I don't see myself as the kind of player that would go to them seeking out a trade. ... My feeling will always be this is the place that I've envisioned winning and this is the place where I want to be. And I'll let them make the hard decisions."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.

Life after Evan Longoria for Rays? Something to talk about 03/11/17 [Last modified: Saturday, March 11, 2017 2:35pm]
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