If anything encapsulates the Tampa Bay Rays' depressing reality, it is this: In 2012, they became the first team in baseball history to win 90 games and finish dead-last in attendance. Actually, maybe it is this: Their local television revenue for the coming half-decade is around $16 million a year, compared to the Dodgers' soon-to-be quarter-billion per annum.
No, no. It has got to be this: Until Monday, the most money the Rays ever guaranteed a player was $35 million – and that was Dec. 4, 1997, for Wilson Alvarez, a free agent they signed before the franchise had played a single game.
In the interceding 15 years, as the Rays evolved from incompetent to hyper-competent, they could not change the one thing that could save them: geography. They are stuck in a lean-to of a stadium with an awful concession deal. Their fan base refuses to show despite more victories over the last five years than every team but the Yankees and Phillies. They continuously outrun the cycle of sports poverty that eats alive so many other franchises. One bad move could funnel them straight to irrelevancy.
All of that was on the table nine months ago when the team and star third baseman Evan Longoria began talking about a contract extension, one that mutated through various iterations and dollar figures and landed about a week ago on the framework that the two sides announced Monday: six years and $100 million tacked onto three existing club options, with another club option at the end for good measure, marrying the two through 2023, or until revenue do them part.
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The Rays believe they will find new cash streams to support a team around a mega-contract despite the last five years of success with no spike arguing otherwise.
Longoria believes in owner Stuart Sternberg, president Matt Silverman, general manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon, perhaps the most cohesive management group in the game, even though after six years they're still ruffling through a janitor-sized key chain to find one that will unlock the secret of how to run a successful baseball franchise in Florida.
Together they leap into the abyss of baseball in the regional-sports network era, where one low-revenue GM warns: "We really are heading for a crash course where if they don't change things in the next three to five years, the small-market teams are going to be the Washington Generals."
The Rays are the phytoplankton on baseball's food chain, and still, Longoria, 27, in the prime of his career, four years from free agency that could've seen him double the money Tampa Bay guaranteed him, went heart over checkbook.
"There's no better place for me," he said.
Plenty of teammates have gone elsewhere, either to chase the money or because the Rays are in a constant state of recycling players when their contracts begin to strain the budget, and Longoria heard the same thing from so many: We miss the Rays. Whether it's because of the genial Maddon or the camaraderie borne of winning or something else that makes Tampa Bay one of the game's best clubhouses each year, it's real, and Longoria weighed that. How many millions did he need to hold out for if he truly enjoyed where he was?
"Is it really worth it if you're not happy?" Longoria said. "In my opinion, no."
For the second time in his career, Longoria left a staggering amount of money on the table. The first time around, he and Tampa Bay negotiated a six-year, $17.5 million deal with the three options before he logged a single major league at-bat. It was one of the team-friendliest deals of all-time in retrospect, though the Rays didn't know Longoria would be a Gold Glove winner with one of the game's most dangerous bats. He could've been Andy Marte, Dallas McPherson, Brandon Wood, all just as well-regarded by scouts, all of whom, in hindsight, would have been historic busts if given a Longoria deal.
Granted, the downside to that for the Rays was $17.5 million, a pin prick. Whiffing on a $136.6 million commitment is a blade to the carotid artery. Never has the Rays' opening day payroll stretched beyond $73 million, and it won't unless fans start showing up or the local TV deal balloons or a new stadium materializes or they move the team. This isn't a threat as much as a twisted reality of baseball disparity. Even in this economic environment, when ballclubs could be mistaken for mints, the Rays struggle financially.
So many of their long-term contracts mirror Longoria's first: low-dollar guarantees with bigger-money club options that allow the Rays flexibility to cut bait when they're wrong. All eight of their current multi-year deals include club options; four have multiple options. There is an implicit understanding that locking in with the Rays takes an elasticity players – and their agents – often lack. While Longoria made it clear that he didn't want this contract to suck up too much payroll, anything short of an absurd deal would have. Longoria took a well-under-market deal, and if he's anything short of great – if his injury bug turns chronic – it will strain the Rays nonetheless.
The Rays always had room for a deal like this. They could've spent this money on Albert Pujols last year and not bankrupted themselves. It was more a matter of with whom they could have surrounded him – and with whom they can supplement Longoria.
"We're going to eat steak, we're going to eat lobster and we're going to drink wine," Sternberg said, "but we're not going to be able to turn the heat on, and the house isn't going to get painted. … "This is just an enormous commitment for us."
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Same for Longoria. He wanted to be the first player to spend his career with the Rays, and that was enough to make them the 20th team to commit $100 million-plus to one player. The Rays went where the big-market White Sox haven't, where the successful Braves wouldn't, where the Arizonas and Baltimores and Clevelands and Kansas Citys and Oaklands and Pittsburghs and San Diegos oughtn't. The nine-figure deal is a wasteland of misspent money, and the franchise that never spent more than $35 million until Monday can't afford a casualty there.
Hell, the Rays might not be able to afford Longoria period. Both parties understand how this works, how it always works with Tampa Bay. If revenue grows, he stays. If it doesn't, he's a chip, just like everyone else, just like it's always been for the winning Rays. Amid all the lowest-revenue teams, and maybe among all teams period, they get how to do business these days, how to draft, develop and deal.
Evan Longoria leapt on that, and those who run the Rays leapt on him, and they'll go where they go together, wedded, as long as their sport will allow them. For better, they hope, than worse.
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