ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays insist that in sending promising third-base prospect Evan Longoria to the minor leagues Monday, they were doing what was best for his development.
But the move raised questions — including in their own clubhouse — if doing so was best for a team touting its increased commitment to winning.
"If I say I commit to winning, he's on my team for sure," rightfielder Jonny Gomes said. "I think everybody wearing a Tampa Bay hat and uniform wants that guy here. I don't think it's a good day on the players' end and for everybody in a uniform."
Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman acknowledged it was not a unanimous decision but insisted it was the right one and made for the right reason — that the 22-year-old widely projected for stardom needs more time at Triple-A Durham — and not because of any financial implications.
"It's one of the things of erring on the side of caution," Friedman said. "It's focusing on his development, first and foremost. And that was the decision we made in a vacuum, just focusing on Evan himself."
Longoria took it relatively well, admitting he was "a little bit let down" and it was "a tough thing to swallow" but that there wasn't much else he could have done, hitting .262 with three homers and 10 RBIs and drawing good reviews for his attitude and overall play.
"I felt like I came in and did what I needed to do," he said. "They made the decision from up top. & Whether it was based on my performance, based on what they need, based on the business side of it, I don't know. It was made, and I'll accept it and handle it."
By claiming it was a baseball decision, the Rays essentially are saying Longoria isn't ready to be part of the best 25-man roster they can assemble. They're left with Willy Aybar, the 25-year-old with the checkered past, as the projected starter at third, with Joel Guzman and Elliot Johnson (with Ben Zobrist headed to the disabled list) the likely reserves.
Manager Joe Maddon said he anticipated criticism from people outside the game (i.e. fans) but insisted the move "doesn't necessarily mean that we're not trying to win right now."
"We believe it's best for Evan to put him in this situation right now, and then we believe that as he goes through this process it will turn out to be the best for him and the best for us," Maddon said. "So we're looking at it to being win-win in our regard when he comes back."
Longoria, with only 104 Triple-A at-bats last season, said the Rays didn't offer any hints as to how long he'd stay in the minors or if there were anything he had to show. Friedman wouldn't publicly, either, saying there was "no one specific thing" Longoria needed to work on at Triple A (though mentioning plate discipline and getting acclimated to more advanced pitching strategies).
But he said that with Longoria's strong showing this spring, "his time line from where we were at the end of last season has been expedited." Their strategy is that when Longoria does come up, he shouldn't have to ever look back.
By keeping Longoria down for a few weeks, the Rays can delay his potential eligibility for free agency a year, until after the 2014 season. If he stays down for several months, he likely would not attain early eligibility for arbitration, known as Super Two status, which could save the Rays millions over the next several years.
But Friedman said those considerations were "virtually irrelevant" because the Rays would expect to sign Longoria to a long-term deal, as they have with other "good, young players" such as James Shields and Carl Crawford, to mitigate the issues.
That didn't help the news go over better in the clubhouse, where players tried diplomatically to say they understood.
"A sad day around here though, huh?" veteran Cliff Floyd said. "It ain't always roses. We all know he had a great spring. It's just what the organization wanted to do. It's going to be tough though. I really liked the kid."
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