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Signed 3B-R Evan Longoria to a six-, seven-, or perhaps even nine-year contract extension, for anywhere ranging from $17.5 million through 2013 to $44 million through 2016. [4/18]
There isn’t a lot you can say about a deal that reflects the growing faith that, when evaluating the genuinely best talent, the combination of scouting, performance, and analysis of that performance is going to give you a very good idea of what to expect from a young, exceptionally gifted player. If you’re a general manager, applied understanding of all three of those pillars of player evaluation-and it takes all three-give you every reason to skip the sturm und drang of fighting over a few dollars more in the sometimes pointless combat of arbitration, and just get down to making a real investment. Whether you’re using a full-bore projection system like PECOTA that gives you helps you attach value to long-term performance, or something home-cooked, you’re going to recognize that whether it’s Longoria, Ryan Braun, or an Upton to be named later, the wisdom of talking turkey early has become increasingly obvious to a generation of front office execs around the game.
And why not? Why wait for all the attendant off-season trimmings of not putting your money where your statistically- and scouting-informed bets are already placed? Who wouldn’t want to skip potentially fractious negotiations, that always-entertaining public grandstanding from some of your more flamboyant agents. Who wants the Pepto-swilling joy that comes with the resignation that maybe you’ll gull a mouth-breather or two on the arbitration panel. Who can’t get enough of those sullen make-ups come spring training, where everyone’s “just here to play, put that off-season stuff behind me, and get to work.”
Now, admittedly, let’s face it, the general intelligence in the industry makes for a lot less drama. Indeed, it makes a throwaway gag about Evan Longoria’s initial demotion and eventual recall and any attendant drama, and comparing that brief bit of service time-minded squalor with that other, designing Longoria nothing short of trite. Just as most of the market has moved away from “mainstream” entertainment, most baseball front offices are dialing away from the more prosaic requirements of talent management in their industry. The smarter segments of the market are getting around signing players for their slot money; they’ll listen to the whining from New York just as network execs might have to log time in front of one self-righteous Congressional committee or another, and then, penance done, they’re smart enough to go right ahead and do what they want to do. Sort of a matter of life, liberty, and the pursuit of building a better ballclub, if you will. Rather than poke along and go through the generally unrewarding arbitration process, smart baseball execs are almost eradicating it from the contractual landscape, either by signing the guys they should to long-term deals, or by non-tendering the ones they shouldn’t. Indeed, that latter mechanism has helped bring us that much closer to Charlie Finley’s sage suggestion to give all players free agency after every season. Increased supply as well as an improved understanding and more careful analysis of player performance is what keeps Kyle Lohse from getting a monster deal where, only a few years before, Eric Milton or Carl Pavano might laugh their way to the bank.
By itself, there’s no reason to freight this development with a value judgment, and to say that it’s “good”-for who, Longoria? Stu Sternberg? It’s not so great if you’re Kyle Lohse-as much as to note that it’s another symptom of an increasingly ferocious competitive dynamic within the industry. You can of course call that good if you wish; fundamentally, it winds up making for more rational management in the industry. If the cycles of success and failure, defined to some extent by the commitments clubs have already made, wind up being communicated effectively to a fan base-say, as it has been in Oakland-you might even be able to steer your franchise through the odd bad patch and still make decent coin.
The challenge in Tampa Bay is related to this point, because as much as signing Longoria for a long time to come is rendered obvious, defensible, and wise by the unyielding convictions formed by men and women who see him play and who evaluate his performance, the act itself is every bit as important for its place in the laborious reinvention of a franchise. The Rays aren’t kidding around-they’re going to spend what it takes, study what they should, do what they must, all so that they can kill the increasingly tedious Yankee/Red Sox minuet deader than Elvis, then dance on the grave of competitive imbalance. That’s not going to happen now, and it’s not going to happen merely because they made a rational business decision in signing Evan Longoria. It’s going to happen because their commitment to Longoria is a symptom of genuine ambition to build a championship-level ballclub, and they’re in a position to package that-their adamantine determination, their deathless patience, their readiness to bury the devilish embarrassments of their Naimoli/Veeck past, and the increasingly obvious possession of the flower of a generation of young talent-as a way to tell a previously indifferent fan base that this is something they might want to be a part of. It isn’t something you capture in mere marketing, it’s something you create through rational action, and as it yields success, it will earn faith. By the time the Rays are ready, like Sallow’s finally-ready band of juggers, they’ll be playing in front of a full house that’s rocking with just the tiniest bit of disbelief.
There are, of course, nits to pick; with any deal there always are. There’s always the possibility that Longoria might pan out, but that’s why the deal’s back-loaded. There’s the perhaps more galling possibility that he winds up being merely mediocre, but as Billy Beane has already demonstrated with Terrence Long, not every back-loaded contract is the sort of thing that might deter another GM looking for a quick fix, or just willing enough to invest some bit of faith as well as capital in the hope that maybe his outfit is the one that can turn that player around. (I know, some A’s fans are wondering if Beane can pull that trick with Eric Chavez, but we’re talking about rational actors playing the odd hunch here, not an act involving an invitation to dinner, a tire iron, a ’74 Eldorado, and the odd bit of brainwashing and black magic.) Even then, we’re talking about $17 million through 2013-not nothing, but it means they’re going to wind up paying less than $3 million per year from now through then for their everyday third baseman, and that’s cheap in today’s market, even if Longoria falls short and achieves mere adequacy. I suppose there’s the provision that Longoria has to kick back $750,000 to the Rays’ charities of choice, which I’d find noisome if it was my boss asking me to do something of the sort, but if the kid’s comfortable with the choice, hey, it’s a free country.
The part about this particular deal that’s really worth noting is that the Rays were apparently willing to put pen to paper and commit to this contract even if the convenient coincidence of Willy Aybar hitting the DL hadn’t happened. As Rays GM Andrew Friedman noted, they would have made this deal happen even if Longoria was a Durham Bull. That might have shattered some more puritanical perspectives on hard work earning proper rewards, and no doubt some old-school bulls in the press box would be croaking about the death of the industry as they knew it. Which is fine, except that it misses the point: as a matter of scouting, performance, and performance analysis, the Rays have every reason to believe that Evan Longoria isn’t just worth $17 million-plus through 2013, or $44 million through 2016, they know perfectly well that they’re placing a bet on one of the best young talents in the game, and that the money won’t merely end up being irrelevant, before the end it has an exceptional chance of being seen as a relative bargain.