Until he was dethroned by Mike Trout this summer, Evan Longoria had been a fixture atop my annual Trade Value series. It was partially due to the fact that he was both young and an excellent player, but, primarily, he ruled the list because his contract was so absurdly slanted in the Rays favor. Despite already racking up +29 WAR in his first four years in the Majors, Longoria has made a total of $8.5 million in salary to date, and is scheduled to make just $6 million in 2013. For comparison, Joey Votto — who also broke into the league as a full-time player in 2008 — has made $16 million thus far, is slated to make $17 million in 2013, and signed a $225 million extension that will keep him in Cincinnati through his age 37 season.
Well, today, Longoria joined Votto, Troy Tulowitzki, and Ryan Braun in signing contracts that should essentially take him through the rest of his productive career. The extension is officially for nine years, beginning next season, though it begins by guaranteeing the three team options the Rays already held for 2014-2016. Under the previously agreed upon deal, Longoria will earn $7.5 million, $11 million, and then $11.5 million before the new years under the contract he signed today kick in.
The breakdown of the contract hasn’t been released yet, but the new deal adds six more years and $100 million in guaranteed salaries, so the AAV of the extension is right around $17 million per season for his 2017-2022 seasons, and then there’s a team option — apparently mandatory if signing a deal with Tampa Bay — for 2023.
The deal falls far short of the total guarantee that Votto extracted from the Reds last summer, but is more comparable to the extensions signed by Tulowitzki and Braun. Tulo was under club control for an additional four years when he signed new contract that was essentially a six year, $119 million extension. Braun had five years left on his current deal with Milwaukee when he agreed to a five year, $105 million extension with the Brewers. Longoria got a little less than both in terms of total guaranteed money, but these extensions clearly were based on the same premise — locking up a franchise player through his mid-30s costs $100ish million if he’s still a long way off from free agency.
There’s clearly some added risk to the Rays franchise in signing up for the age 31 to 36 seasons of a guy who has had some injury issues, especially because a lot of his value is tied up in his defense at third base. While they’re not exactly the same player, Longoria does share a decent amount in common with Eric Chavez, and his age 29-34 seasons — he accumulated a total of +2.2 in those six seasons — serve as a warning to how quickly a great player can become an albatross. However, you don’t avoid contracts with players out of fear of the worst case scenario, and the reward here for Tampa Bay should be worth the added risk.
With new television money pouring MLB, salaries are rising, and there are reasons to think they’re going to continue to rise quickly over the next few years. For mid-to-small revenue clubs like Colorado, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Tampa Bay, this new money is allowing them to make long term commitments to their elite stars, keeping their best home-grown developed players with their original franchises. This is undeniably a good thing for the sport. Previous rounds of inflation have been instigated through free agency, with a few large spenders pushing up the prices for everyone. Now, we’re seeing the rising prices lead to free agency avoidance, and teams are dipping into their future payrolls to keep their current stars in place.
If we assume that player prices keep rising in MLB, Longoria’s contract is still going to look like a pretty big bargain even when the new money kicks in. Even just assuming five percent annual inflation — which could easily be too low — the market price of a win by the end of this deal should be in the $8 to $10 million range. The Rays are essentially locking up Longoria at rates that would pay him along the lines of what we’d expect an average player to make in free agency from 2017 to 2022. While Longoria probably won’t be a superstar in 10 years, he should be able to maintain enough of his skills to match that needed level of production.
Eventually, one of these contracts is going to blow up on the signing team like the Chavez deal did for the A’s. The Rays are going to have to hope Longoria’s hamstring issues don’t persist long term, and that he’s able to stay on the field enough to justify these contracts even as his body begins to wear down. But, given the price they got and the money that MLB is distributing to each team because of the deals signed with ESPN, Fox, and TBS, this is a gamble the Rays could afford to make. And, really, that’s about the best post possible news that MLB teams can give their fans. Instead of inflation causing everyone to rush towards giant free agent paydays, teams are now keeping their stars from ever having the chance to leave. It’s good for the organizations, good for the players, and great for the game as a whole.