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    Monday, November 26, 2012

    Rays Lock Up Evan Longoria Forever (Pretty Much)

    The Tampa Bay Rays have done something very un-Rays-like today, handing Evan Longoria a $100 million, six-year contract.

    Now, a $100 million deal in general would seem odd for the Rays, but what makes this one odd no matter who it’s from is the years. Specifically, the Rays already had Longoria signed through 2016. The six years in this deal run from 2017 to 2022 (with an option for 2023).

    On a side note, I would like to add that it blows my mind that we have contracts running into 2023. 2020 still seems far away, but into the mid-2020s? That just seems ridiculous.

    Anyway, Longoria just finished his age-26 season, meaning that this deal also covers him until he’s 37. Normally, that would be a bad thing, right? Locking up a player for a large sum of money until they’re in their late 30s? Aren't the Rays supposed to be smarter than your average front office?

    Actually, I would say this deal fits in with the Rays normal moves. Despite the general aversion to long-term, $100 million deals, this one looks like the Rays might come out on top.

    First, there’s the straight money-for-performance aspect. Fangraphs each year calculates the cost of a free agent based on the contracts signed that offseason. The dollar amount is tied to Wins Above Replacement; for example, after last winter, they estimated that the cost of a player was about $5 million per WAR (which, with that high cost, is why young players and bargain-bin pick ups are so important).

    So, combining this new deal with the established one, the total contract works out to $136 million over ten years (leaving out the 2023 option, which is of course not definite). That works out to $13.6 million per year, or just over 2.7 Wins per season. to give that some context, despite being injured this past season and only playing in 74 games, Fangraphs pegged him at 2.4 WAR. So Longoria clearly has the talent needed to make this a bargain.

    But it doesn’t make sense to look at it as a ten year deal, as the Rays already had four of those years guaranteed. Instead, let’s look at it as just the 2017 to 2022 seasons. In that time, the contract comes out to $16.67 million per year, or 3.3 WAR per year. Okay, maybe not the best choice, considering he’ll be 31 at the start of that time.

    But, that doesn’t account for two other factors. One, Evan Longoria is pretty darn good, and those players are generally better into their later years than your average Pat Burrell-types. For example, let’s look at the top third basemen by OPS+ through age 26. Longoria is in a tie for sixth place with David Wright at 137. Wright is three seasons past his age 26 season, and in that time has two all-star appearances and a sixth place finish in MVP voting this year.

    Ahead of those two are: Dick Allen, Eddie Matthews, Home Run Baker, Jim Thome, and Mike Schmidt.* That’s three Hall of Famers, a future member, and a snub, which is a good start. Thome and Schmidt were the only ones to make it past the age of 36, and both were still good when they reached that mark (Schmidt won an MVP his age-36 season, while Thome had a 150 OPS+).

    *It’s also worth noting that Longoria is a much better fielder than Thome or Allen, and is therefore more likely to stay at third base and preserve his value.

    Of the other three? Matthews was having All-Star-to-MVP quality years until the age of 33, and maintained some use after that (although his defense took a hit to his value, as did his deteriorating playing time). Baker played in a very different time, deciding to sit out his age 29 season for contract reasons, then jumping right back in with four solid-to-all-star years before retiring at age 34, then un-retiring and posting another solid year and a half before retiring again for good. Dick Allen suffered a broken leg at the age of 32 that led to a temporary retirement, then an un-retirement that saw a short return to form. So basically, there’s the threat of injury, but that’s present no matter what.

    That theme seems to hold for the rest of the young, good hitting third basemen: they continue to hit well, which is even more valuable if they can stay at third base, unless injuries end their careers. The floor of the top twenty are: Bill Bradley (dead ball star who wasn’t great after the age of 28), Jim Ray Hart (wasn’t great after 30), Bill Madlock (113 OPS+ after the age of 30, although his defense was awful), Bob Horner (injuries ended his career), Richie Hebner (107 OPS+, but poor defense in his old age pushed him off the position), and Pinky Higgins (107 OPS+, but with awful defense).

    The upside? Also in the top twenty are Wade Boggs, Geroge Brett, Chipper Jones, Gary Sheffield, Ron Santo, and Sal Bando, all of whom were good-to-great in that time*. Even if he ends up injury-plagued like 21st on the list, Scott Rolen, Longoria can still provide massive value. Despite only playing more than 130 games in a season twice in his ages 31 through 36 seasons, Rolen put up 21.9 WAR in that time.

    *Also, there’s Pablo Sandoval, but we can’t really draw any conclusions from him yet.

    Obviously, the Rays would prefer if Longoria played a little more consistently than Rolen has, but it’s something you have to consider since Longoria has missed time the last two seasons (133 games in 2011, and 74 games in 2012). It has to be comforting to know that Longoria can hold his value even while being injured those years, though.

    The other thing to consider (man, that was a long first point) is that the $5 million/WAR rate is not fixed; rather, it’s a general estimate. Teams close to a playoff spot can get more value out of each additional win (as each win brings you closer to October and the increased revenue/glory it brings). So, with the Rays finishing at 90 wins last year, each additional win should be worth more (a full year of Longoria alone might have made the difference). So in that sense, the Rays are getting a better investment.

    On top of that, there is inflation in MLB-land, just like in the rest of the world. Salaries, and therefore, the price of a win, increase over time. So Longoria will likely not need to put up 3.3 WAR seasons as a 36 year old to live up to his contract.

    In fact, there has been some speculation that, with the large TV deals being thrown around as of late, MLB free agent salaries might sky rocket in the next few years. In that event, then the Rays did an especially good job to lock up Longoria now, and they might be looking at a huge bargain for the next decade.

    Either way, I would say the Rays did a very good job in acting fast and locking up Evan Longoria now. It’s good to see one player sticking around his team for that long, especially a player like Longoria and a small-market team like the Rays.

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