Losing faith is not like losing your favorite player. When Akinori Iwamura, Carlos Pena, and Dan Wheeler got injured/old, and then retired, all I lost was the pleasure of watching them play baseball. Their departure left the memories intact.
When Carl Crawford signed with the Red Sox, sure I was annoyed, but a baseball player who’s a free agent can go where he wants, and CC had $142 million reasons to pick Boston.
Trades of beloved stars are always tough to stomach, but James Shields brought us Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi. David Price brought us Drew Smyly and Willy Adames. I was nobody’s fool. I understood the economics. MLB is stacked against a small market team like the Rays, but those trades clearly showed that the Rays understood the game too, and thought they knew how to win anyway.
- Value high-floor, young major leaguers to replace as many wins you can right now.
- Also snag some high-variance prospects for later to keep the pipeline flowing.
- Reload, rather than rebuild.
- Be smarter.
- Get lucky.
I believed them.
Then, in quick succession, the Rays lost Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon to large-market teams. That’s when I knew the Rays’ time was over, and that it had always been a mirage. How can you “be smarter” when your rich opponents keep coming around and hiring away your smart guys?
The Rays just traded Evan Longoria. Friedman and Maddon are long gone.
The two moves are only distantly related, but they pose the same existential questions for Rays fans—What is this team? Can I believe in it?
Some time ago, I wrote about the projected value remaining on Evan Longoria’s contract. You can see the numbers themselves, here, in a Google Doc.
Longoria is still a good player, and his contract has real value—by my reckoning, about $34 million (discounting the option year). But that value is front-loaded, mostly landing in the next two years. By the end of his contract in 2022, it’s a fair wager that Longoria will be paid more than he can produce on the field.
The most important return piece in this trade is Christian Arroyo, who will instantly become one of the candidates to replace Longoria at third base. Writing last March, Dave Cameron tagged Arroyo with a $38 million surplus value. Then Arroyo got his first taste of the big leagues, struggled, and hurt his hand. That poor 2017 campaign has moved Arroyo’s valuation down, although by how much is an open question that different analysts will answer differently. JT gave a good rundown of Arroyo and the other prospects the Rays picked up.
Compare the two players this way:
- Longoria is a significantly better bet to produce in 2018.
- The mean projection for Longoria and Arroyo has them as likely to produce similar amounts of surplus value over the course of their remaining team control.
- Arroyo’s floor is much lower—there’s a real chance he never establishes himself as a major league regular.
- Arroyo’s value ceiling (if not necessarily his production ceiling) is higher—because he’s only owed the major league minimum, if he can make an adjustment and become an All-Star level player, the value will be large.
- Arroyo’s risk is much lower—if he doesn’t pan out, the Rays can simply move on. His guaranteed salary will not impact future roster flexibility.
The Rays swapped like pieces with San Francisco, and what they got back was of similar total value, but with higher variance (that’s a good thing for a team on the bubble and needing to get lucky to make the playoffs) and also lower risk. And they also got some intriguing young arms in Matt Krook and Stephen Woods, as well as a veteran paid about what he’s worth ($9 million for a 1-WAR projection) in Denard Span. That’s a good deal, right?
Maybe, but pay attention to the first bullet point: “Longoria is a significantly better bet to produce in 2018.”
I can think of another Rays trade that compares to this one.
Back in 2009, the Rays were in the midst of a playoff race when they traded Scott Kazmir for Alex Torres, Matthew Sweeney, and a player to be named later that would eventually become Sean Rodriguez.
It was shocking for many. Like Longoria, Kazmir was a face of the franchise. Pilfered from the Mets in a laughably uneven trade years earlier, Kazmir was a source of pride when Rays fans had little. Even with few other reasons to watch the Rays, we tuned in for Kazmir’s starts, wondering how many batters he’d strike out this time.
Rooting for the Rays meant pumping one's fist (or nodding smilingly, depending on one's level of expressiveness) at a slider in the dirt, swung at, strike three.
I fault no one for being unhappy when that trade went down, but I wasn’t surprised. At the time of the trade, Kazmir wasn’t himself. Generally, fans are way too quick to call a player broken, to write them off after a slump, but I won’t deny this one. Scott Kazmir was broken, and everyone (except, apparently, the Angels) could see it.
The Rays owed Kazmir $8 million for 2010 and $12 million for 2011, and he was not a good bet to produce. Instead, they traded him right before his value tanked (the Angels did eventually cut him in 2011), and instead of tying up their payroll in a bad contract, they got to enjoy Torres and Rodriguez, and eventually Logan Forsythe, Brad Boxberger, and Matt Andriese. Maybe Kazmir will continue to give to the Rays if Jose De Leon is able to make an impact in the future.
It was a cold call, but it was the right one.
The Evan Longoria trade is a lot like that, except that the cliff Longoria is approaching isn’t here yet. Longoria is a significantly better bet to produce in 2018. And because more time means more uncertainty, that cliff might not end up being a cliff at all.
Whether or not this is a “salary dump” is semantics. It’s more like a salary dump than anything the Rays have pulled in a while, but it’s dumping salary three-to-four years from now—shifting the focus off current wins and taking a risk, trying to put the Rays in a better position to win in the future.
Jason Collette wrote a good analysis on the trade that compares Longoria to other top third baseman in their mid thirties, and shows that betting on him to be Chipper Jones would not be smart.
Personally, I’d have sorta liked for the team to bet on Evan Longoria.
But what hurts more than the specific details of any single trade is the realization that the Rays are not what you thought they were. Maybe you thought that they had figured out a way to win consistently in a league whose markets are stacked against them. They have not. Maybe you thought signing good, long-term contracts meant beloved players would finish out those contracts. It does not. Maybe you thought the Rays don’t “dump salary.” They do. Maybe you thought there was something special about Tampa Bay; that the team and the town were a family that would stick together. There is not; they are not.
If you just learned these things, I’m sorry. I learned them in October of 2014, and what I can tell you from the other side is that the Rays are a cold, losing franchise in a cold league, and that despite it all, I still like baseball.
As long as the Yankees and the Red Sox make double or triple what the Rays make and are allowed to spend that on payroll, Rays fans will have to put up with this. Being an underdog that won was fun, but underdogs, by definition, do not usually win. Tampa Bay will never be New York City. Recognizing that, one can still be proud of Tampa Bay.
I’d have been proud to watch the Rays lose with Evan Longoria, though.