23 at-bats is how long Evan Longoria had been at the major league level. Seven hits, one a homerun, and a few games as the third baseman were all it took, well that and a .920 minor league OPS. Less than a week after making his debut, Longoria would sign a contract tying him to the Rays until after the 2016 season. The immediate details were six years, 17.5 million guaranteed and three club option seasons combining for 30 million. All told, Longoria’s contract reached nine years and 47.5 million with the potential to reach 50 million, depending on Longoria’s MVP vote totals.
Longoria was selected by the Rays third overall in the 2006 major league baseball amateur draft. The draft was the first under new management and ownership, and previous speculation had Longoria being selected second overall by the Colorado Rockies, leaving the Rays with University of Washington standout pitcher Tim Lincecum. A year and a half later both would win hardware, with Lincecum winning the National League Cy Young award and Longoria the American League Rookie of the Year award.
Pre-draft scouting reports made available to the public had Longoria being compared to the likes of Joe Randa, Aaron Hill, and even Chase Utley. Coming out of high school, Longoria went undrafted, despite earning a spot on perennially competitive Long Beach State's baseball team (Ed: after spending a year at JuCo). Longoria would start for LBSU two consecutive years, hitting .320/.368/.421 his sophomore season and .353/.468/.602 his junior season in which Longoria would replace another top draftee, LBSU shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
Much of Longoria's inflated stock came from his participation in the 2005 Cape Cod League. A summer league infamous for hosting some of baseball's future stars every June through August since 1964. The league, unlike college baseball, require players to use wooden bats, much like professionals, rather than aluminum, thus giving a better idea of the translation to come. Longoria would net the 2005 Paul Sorenti Award - the Cod's version of the Most Valuable Player award - by hitting eight homeruns, slugging .500, and recording 16 extra base hits of his 49 total.
Longoria would sign the day of the draft and report to Low-A Hudson Valley. After spending merely eight games with the Renegades, Longoria would garner a promotion, his final line featuring four homeruns, a .487 on-base percentage, an a .879 slugging in 33 at-bats. Longoria's next stop would be High-A Visalia, to which he'd sail through nearly as easily as Hudson Valley. After 28 games and with a 1.020 OPS, Longoria would be sent to Double-A Montgomery. Longoria would comparatively struggle with the Biscuits, only hitting well enough for a .752 OPS, largely in part due to a deflated walk total, but would help the playoff bound Biscuits win the Southern League title.
Longoria would split 2007 between Montgomery (.931 OPS) and Durham (.888) and would again win the league championship, this time with the Bulls. Despite speculation that Longoria would begin 2008 with the Rays, he sent instead to Durham. After seven games, and an injury to Rays third baseman Willy Aybar, Longoria would be promoted, and thus begin his journey towards becoming the most valuable asset in baseball.
To fully understand the Rays front office, one must understand the history involved with the top executives. Whereas most would describe the management as one of the "Moneyball" variety, it's actually more of the Wall Street variety. From owner Stuart Sternberg down, the highest of highs in the Rays hierarchy consists of financially savvy personnel capable of playing the baseball market as if it were the stock game.
Sternberg himself is a former equity trader and partner at The Goldman Sachs Group. After purchasing the team in 2005 Sternberg installed Matthew Silverman as team president. Silverman worked alongside Sternberg in numerous mergers and acquisitions during their time together at Goldman Sachs. Prior to his hiring, Silverman had elected to take time off in order to complete a novel about a father-son relationship based around baseball. Not long thereafter Silverman became one of the top young executives in the game. The pair would name the Rays current Director of Baseball Development and former Bear Stearns analyst Andrew Friedman as Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations - a longer, more complex take on the typical General Manager title.
Combined the trio would bring aboard new and old baseball types alike. Gerry Hunsicker, the architect of the wildly successful Houston Astros, would join as an advisor to the inexperienced Friedman. Mitch Lukevics, one of the key executives for the 1990's New York Yankees was also hired. As was James Click, a sabermetrics expert from the publication Baseball Prospectus, and Dan Feinstein, popular from his involvement in the book Moneyball.
Despite rumors, and later validation, of the Rays interest in former New York Mets Bobby Valentine, the Rays would instead settle on two unknowns. Rays bench coach John McLaren, right-hand man to former Rays manager Lou Piniella, and Joe Maddon, a quirky bench coach to Anaheim Angels head man Mike Scioscia. Maddon would be the choice and would gain immediate exposure for his bulky eyewear, expansive vocabulary, and love of wine.
Unlike its predecessor, the new Rays front office was driven on processes, not results and made it known that while times were changing, fans would have to be patient while collecting parts to form a winner. Inheriting one of the least successful teams in major league history did have some perks. For one, the previous regime had done a decent job at drafting, leaving the Rays with one of the best farm systems in baseball and a high pick (which would become Longoria) to come. The Rays would become the first team in baseball history to pick first overall in consecutive seasons, but simply added to the all ready impressive core of young talent.
During 2006 and 2007 most of the veterans were shipped out for prospects, raising eyebrows and contempt levels across the fan base. Largely ignored, when locals did talk about the team it was usually cries to fire Maddon or asking what these Wall Street kids knew about baseball. Even in the face of re-signing homegrown stars Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford, there were accusations thrown out that the team was more interested in turning a profit than winning a pennant, and then 2008 happened.
Behind Longoria and some of those other young parts, the Rays would not only more than 70 games for the first time in franchise history, or break the .500 mark, or even make the playoffs, but instead win the American League East division crown and then the American League pennant. The Rays would host more playoff games than any other team in 2008, and despite the final World Series result, would have to consider 2008 one of the more amazing success stories in baseball history.
Terms like "positive arbitrage", "quantitative analysis", and "mark-to-market" are thrown around in conversations about the Rays operating procedures, and the latter was most notably on display with Longoria. In baseball terms, the Rays assigned a value to Longoria's future seasons based on what he would earn in the open market. While it's impossible to know the exact methodology the Rays used, there is a common method established and used in the sabermetric community.
Tom Tango has found that baseball teams paid roughly 4.4 million per win above replacement level in 2008. Replacement level is a fictional level which assumes a replacement level team would win nearly 50 games and cost 12 million. The key is to find a player's value when compared to a replacement level player, which is generally "two wins" or twenty runs below average. This is referred to was a "Win Above Replacement" or WAR. Tango has also developed positional adjustments, based on the skill required at each defensive position, and an offensive metric named wOBA, based on linear weights that assign run values to offensive events such as a hit, walk, or homerun and scaled to on-base percentage.
In a post-2008 season world, we know Longoria was nearly five wins better than replacement level, which is to say Longoria is a very good player. Since Longoria is 23 and the typical batter's peak is nearing age 28, we can assume Longoria will play at a high level throughout most of his contract. With baseball's market inflating roughly 10% each off-season, one WAR becomes increasingly valuable annually, making a contract signed in 2008 look comparably more conservative than one likely signed in 2010 or beyond.
If Longoria is able to simply match his rookie season through 2016, he'll amass roughly 36 WAR and have a combined value of more than 240 million. A majority of five WAR seasons push Longoria dangerously close to the 300 million mark. When pre-arbitration and arbitration percentages are placed on the estimates, Longoria is still worth nearly three times his real contract. Yet, no matter how good Longoria is, his contract states he'll make a maximum of 50 million. That's a little more than 1/5th his projected value in our static scenario. If Longoria becomes one of the very best players in the majors (more so than he was in 2008) and earns seven WAR during any season after 2013, that single season worth will exceed his entire contract.
With such a discrepancy in real versus presumed value, it's difficult to imagine too many contracts exceeding Longoria's in terms of pure asset to the team. The procedure used to compare Longoria's contract to others is simple: amount of money divided by projected WAR. This is to say, dollars paid per win. Longoria's is 1.4 million per WAR.
Albert Pujols' contract (eight years, 116 million) would have to be considered one of the best contracts in baseball, however even if we assume Pujols is an unheard of nine WAR player throughout the contract's length, his Mil/WAR is 1.6. Superstar shortstop Hanley Ramirez can be worth seven WAR annually and still have the Marlins paying nearly two million per win thanks to his six-year 70 million dollar extension. Even Tulowitzki who signed a seven-year 46 million dollar contract can regain his 2007 value of five WAR for the remainder of his contract and see his total Mil/WAR fail to beat Longoria, in large part due to an injury ridden 2008 which left him worth a little less than three WAR, making Mil/WAR an equal 1.4.
When Longoria signed the extension, it's unlikely he had any idea how big of a victory the Rays were notching. This is not to say the deal is one-sided though. Longoria ensured himself security and well-being, earlier, in a profession where his body is literally his living. Longoria was likely thankful for the extension in early August, when the Seattle Mariners' closer J.J. Putz hit him in the wrist with a pitch, breaking a bone and causing Longoria to miss over a month. Although the injury doesn't appear to have residual effects, it very easily could have cost Longoria some of the electric bat speed that his made him into one of baseball's brightest young stars and perhaps baseball's biggest asset.
All contractual information courtesy of Cots Baseball Contracts
Cape Cod statistics and information courtesy of the league's official website
Game log information courtesy of Baseball-Reference
College statistics courtesy of The Baseball Cube
Front office personnel biographies courtesy of the team's official website.