The priorities of the off-season for the Tampa Bay Rays were expected to begin with the anticipated loss of longtime centerfielder B.J. Upton. Addressing additional weaknesses at first base, middle infield, and catcher likely occupy significant spots on the the team’s wish list.
However, few anticipated the frugal club now rewarding one of their own, especially a player already under contract through 2016. That is exactly the move Tampa Bay has executed in its boldest decision of the off-season and team history.
On Monday, November 26, the Rays added 6 years onto the contract of third baseman Evan Longoria. The deal will pay the 27 year-old an additional $100 million through 2022 and further provides a club option for the distant 2023 campaign.
The affable player quickly commented on the agreement on his busy Twitter feed, saying: “Today is a proud day for myself, my family, and my extended Rays family.”
In committing to Longoria, the Rays have constructed their lineup for the next decade around its most productive player. Despite missing over half of the 2012 season with a hamstring injury, the California native proved his value when healthy. In 74 games, “Longo” batted .289 with 17 home runs and 55 RBI, while often serving as the only feared bat in an underachieving offense.
Appearing destined to dominate all the records of this young franchise, Longoria has earned 3 All-Star appearances through his first 5 seasons and was the 2008 American League Rookie of the Year. With a career average of .276, the third baseman has already crushed 130 homers, driven in 456 runs, and possesses an impressive .516 career slugging percentage.
Furthermore, Longoria has long established a reputation for clutch hitting. Reaching the World Series in his rookie campaign, he belted 6 home runs during his initial trip to the post-season. Perhaps no moment has delivered more drama for Rays since the 2008 season than the final game of 2011. During that must-win contest, Longoria’s 8th inning home run helped overcome a late 7-0 deficit and a 12th inning blast sealed the victory and a trip to the playoffs.
In fact, “Game 162” has been described by some as “baseball’s best night ever” and Longo certainly savored the spotlight as its featured performer.
Selected as the 3rd overall pick of the 2006 draft, owner Stuart Sternberg is again committing long-term to a player that his organization brought on board during the very first year of his ownership. Perhaps this dedication should not surprise, as it took Longoria less than 2 years to reach the major leagues, and he was rewarded with his current 6 year, $17.5 million deal only days after his 2008 call-up.
As part of the new deal, previously-negotiated options for 2014 through 2016 will be picked up and compensate the slugger with nearly $30 million for those 3 seasons.
In total, Longoria will remain with the Tampa Bay Rays for the next 10 years and earn a total of $136.6 million. While these figures are record setting for the thrifty club, they fail to reach intimidating levels recently provided to players like Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols.
In fact, though the Rays embrace risk through such a lengthy deal, it is certainly possible that the 27 year-old will out-perform this contract.
That is exactly the hope of both fans and the organization, since Longoria will remain the face of a franchise otherwise emphasizing steady pitching. Though this move was not expected, it remains consistent with the principles embraced by Sternberg and GM Andrew Friedman of locking up homegrown talent at sub-market rates.
Perhaps the most optimistic signal from Longo’s contract extension is the message sent to fans about the long-term viability of the club. Though the Tampa Bay fan-base is dogged by poor attendance and ownership has openly criticized Tropicana Field, such an aggressive commitment reveals confidence that the team can make finances work.
Such faith likely includes the belief that the Rays will call a new ballpark home during the 10 year span of Longoria’s deal. While outwardly no closer to an agreement on a new stadium, it is unlikely such financial risk would be embraced if Sternberg thought it impossible.
Replacing Upton and locating several new pieces for a needy lineup remain priorities of the off-season. Though the Longoria contract extension assists long-term development, more work is surely needed in the near future.
Those decisions await, but fans can rejoice in one already undertaken. Saying goodbye to players like Upton is difficult, but at least Longoria’s #3 jersey can be worn with confidence.
Yahoo! Sports, Baseball-Reference.com, Twitter.com, Mlb.com.
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Jeff Briscoe is a regular contributor for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and a follower of the Tampa Bay Rays . He talks Rays’ baseball and more on The Sports Train radio show in Southwest Florida.