SARASOTA — Give me Albert Pujols for an at-bat.
Seriously, if a game is on the line, who else would you want?
And give me Roy Halladay for a September start.
There might be other choices, but why quibble with success?
On the other hand, give me Evan Longoria for the foreseeable future.
Because, in terms of age, ability, position, appeal and contract, there is not a greater asset in Major League Baseball today than Tampa Bay's third baseman. If he were an investment, he would be a sure bet at the ground floor. If he were a car, he would be the best value on the lot.
If he were real estate?
"He could be Derek Jeter's new home on Davis Islands. That's what he could be," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's definitely high-rent district. From my perspective, maybe a European resort. Costa del Sol or possibly southern France."
Just to clarify, there is a difference between saying Longoria is the best player in the game and saying he is the greatest asset. Pujols is certainly a better hitter than Longoria. But Pujols is 6 years older, and his salary is 16 times larger. Joe Mauer is a better hitter and plays a more critical position. But Mauer is in the final year of a contract and about to become the highest-paid catcher in history. Zack Greinke or Tim Lincecum might be more valuable today, but pitchers are far more volatile.
So, no, Longoria is not quite the best player in baseball today.
Just the most coveted. And for a variety of reasons.
I asked an assortment of scouts, executives and former players if they could trade Longoria straight up for any player in the big leagues would they make the deal. Some of them pondered. Some of them equivocated. But, in the end, all of them said essentially the same thing:
No. No freakin' way.
It's not any one thing that makes Longoria more valuable than the rest. It is the combination of everything positive and the complete lack of anything negative.
You want a hitter? I suggested Longoria was among the top dozen hitters in the game. One scout corrected me. Top half-dozen hitters, he said. Another suggested Longoria was probably among the top five.
You want a fielder? He won the Gold Glove award last season at age 23. And he probably deserved it when he was 22. One scout said Longoria's appeal is he could go 0-for-4 and still change a game with his glove.
You want a brand? Less than two years after his major-league debut, Longoria is already being featured in multiple national ads. He is the type of cornerstone player whom franchises spend decades seeking.
You want value? Including options, the Rays have Longoria signed for the next seven years at $43.45 million. To put that in perspective, the Yankees will pay Alex Rodriguez $166 million during that time. A-Rod will be 41 by 2016. Longoria will be 31.
Naturally, this is a subjective argument. A couple of people mentioned Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has similar appeal. Someone else suggested Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, Diamondbacks rightfielder Justin Upton and Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez were also cited.
The greatest difference is that Longoria's contract is more team-friendly than any of those players' deals. It has been said that agents now refer to a player who has a contract below market value as being Longoria-ed.
To be fair, there is a reason Longoria's contract is looking so beneficial to the Rays. It's not unusual for teams to try to tie up young players long term to buy out their arbitration years and early free agent years, but the Rays were willing to take on more risk early in the contract.
Longoria signed this deal during his first month in the big leagues. That makes the contract unique. Justin Upton was already an All-Star by the time he signed a six-year, $51.25 million deal this spring. Braun had already won a rookie of the year award before signing an eight-year, $45 million deal. Pedroia had already won an MVP award when he signed a six-year, $40.5 million contract.
The Rays, by contrast, did not wait for Longoria to prove himself. They took on a little risk in 2008 and, because of that, will reap the rewards through 2016.
For a team with limited revenues such as the Rays, that type of calculated gamble is a necessity. They tried a similar deal when Rocco Baldelli was coming off an injury four years ago, and it turned out poorly from a financial perspective. They tried it with B.J. Upton when he was in the minors, and he turned down the deal. The jury is still out on that decision, although Upton will probably benefit in the long run.
At this point, the wisdom of the contract is no longer important. Just its ramifications.
Longoria has millions in the bank and plenty more on the horizon. You have a bona fide star to follow for years to come.
And the Rays have the most valuable asset in the game.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.