Friday, January 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

With age, Evan Longoria's priorities change

ST. PETERSBURG

Scouts can say the darnedest things.

At various times this season, talent evaluators from other teams have asked, wondered and speculated about what has changed with Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, what's wrong with him, even what he has left.

As Longoria wraps his eighth season with the Rays, preparing to turn 30 next week and with seven years and $107 million left on a contract that had long been viewed as one of the game's best bargains, his numbers invite the skepticism and even criticism.

His 21 home runs and 73 RBIs, after going deep and doubling in a run Thursday against the Marlins, are his fewest for a full season, his .769 on-base plus slugging percentage better than only 2014. It has been five years since he was last an All-Star.

Longoria considers this a good but not great year, confident he has "more in the tank" and can do better. Also, as you would expect, he is not too concerned about how outsiders, whether it's scouts offering anonymous assessments, media, or anyone else see it.

But what's interesting is how he views his personal numbers.

"I really feel like at this point in my career, success in my own mind starts to become measured by different things, different yardsticks," he said. "Ten out of 10 times I'd rather have a year like I had this year and make the playoffs and have a chance to win a championship.

"It's never fun, and I've said this a thousand times to you, to have a great year and at the end of the year you're packing up the same way I'm packing up.

"It's cool and all, but especially where I'm at. I've signed a long-term contract, so it's not like I'm a free agent and I'm individually going out there to play for a contract.

"For me, I want to win. And I want to win here. And I want to give our guys and our fans and everybody who follows us those opportunities that we had when we've been in the playoffs and played for a championship.

"It's not to say I don't care, it's just like there's different incentives for me. The incentives are different."

That would explain the apparent change in approach that has Longoria hitting the ball to rightfield more often, giving himself up to move runners, playing, in essence, more to the scoreboard, doing little things to help the team win.

But there seems to be an obvious flaw in that thinking.

Shouldn't Longoria be the one trying to do big things?

Isn't he the key hitter, the beast, in the middle of the Rays lineup? That one guy other teams should fear beating them with a home run or a double in the gap?

If he was having a huge year, like his 33-homer, 113-RBI 2009 campaign, wouldn't the Rays have an even better chance of getting to the playoffs?

"When he's hitting, not to put added pressure on, it really helps shape our lineup," manager Kevin Cash acknowledged. "He's the key to this thing."

There are, of course, some extenuating circumstances. Longoria has dealt with a sore left wrist much of the season that he didn't want anyone to talk about. And the lack of support in the lineup has left him more vulnerable to be pitched around, tempting him to swing at pitches he shouldn't, wanting, by his count, "about 200 back."

And, in a way, he is a victim of his own early success, creating the expectation he was on a track to be a superstar.

"It's tough," he said. "It's kind of like one of those situations where you are damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. … Of course I would like my numbers to be better. Everybody wants to be better. And I believe they are in there. Now it's just go back to the drawing board in the offseason and try to figure out how to get back."

But, in what is essentially the midpoint of his career, will he be among the greats again?

"The years, the window to play at your highest level is very small," he said. "I want to experience those things, and I work every day to try to get back to that.

"But I really believe that ultimately, at the end of the day, if you win a World Series, you're pretty much immortalized in the city that you're in. That takes precedent over anything. It's the cliche thing for me to say, but for me it's the truth. I'm not playing for anything else really other than this team and that one thing."

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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