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Evan Longoria should rejoin the Tampa Bay Rays this week, maybe as early as Tuesday, and immediately regain his status as the most valuable player in baseball. This is not the same as the best player nor the Most Valuable Player, capital MVP, both of which connote performance alone. Value, in a real sense, is performance-plus-contract, and Longoria still has a stranglehold on the title of game's best contract.
Exempt, for the purpose of this discussion, are players whose contracts baseball's collective-bargaining agreement automatically depresses – notably players with zero to three years' service time and further those who have yet to reach free agency. That means Mike Trout (paid about the $500,000 league minimum), Stephen Strasburg (making $3 million from his original deal) and Clayton Kershaw (in the middle of a two-year, $19 million contract that bought out his first two arbitration years) don't qualify.
Of the free-agent deals and contract extensions agreed upon by player and team, Longoria's is approaching Henry III in length of reign. There are other great ones, which we'll cover in the coming degrees (via Baseball Prospectus' indispensible contract database), but executives considered Longoria's the best shortly after he signed it a week into his first season and followed it up by winning Rookie of the Year. While Longoria has just one more guaranteed year remaining on the original six-year, $17.5 million deal, the Rays hold three more options that will bring the total to four years and $36 million.
The contract was something of a risk for the Rays. The reward, it turns out, was manifold. Chew on this fact: For the first five years of his major-league career …
1. Evan Longoria has been paid $8.5 million. That's for 117 home runs, 420 RBIs, 356 runs, 279 extra-base hits, a .516 slugging percentage, two Gold Gloves and altogether superb defense, an .879 OPS (which, adjusted for park, is 37 percent better than league average) and the sort of clubhouse presence teammates, coaches and management alike appreciates.
Vernon Wells is making $21 million this year to massage his behind on a bench – and earn the title of Steve Henson's worst contract in baseball.
Unfair comparison? OK. Chone Figgins, perhaps the worst hitter in baseball, is making $9 million this year, a half-million more than Longoria has in his first five seasons.
[Steve Henson: Dodgers go all-in with trade for Joe Blanton, claim of Cliff Lee]
Want to blame free-agent markup? All right. Let's have some fun with extensions: Ricky Nolasco and his 4.90 ERA? A cool $9 million.
All of this is not to impugn the previous contracts – OK, maybe it is a little – but to show what a brushstroke of brilliance the Longoria deal was. Granted, there are but a handful of players who would've signed such a team-friendly deal … much, similarly, as there are but a handful who would've merited one. Longoria and Tampa Bay was the perfect match of player, time and money. Since his debut, the Rays have made the playoffs in three of four seasons. The contract helped Tampa Bay shape its roster, same as the deal for …
2. Andrew McCutchen has spurred something new for the Pittsburgh Pirates: winning. After avoiding a sweep Sunday against the best team in baseball, Cincinnati, the Pirates are 61-46. They need only go 21-34 the rest of the way for their first winning season in 19 years. Thirty wins almost surely would lock them into their first post-Bonds playoff spot.
Much of their success is owed to McCutchen, who is asserting himself as every bit the freak Tim Lincecum once was. Like Lincecum, McCutchen is undersized (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) and obscenely, unfathomably powerful. He snapped a homerless drought of 58 at-bats with his 23rd of the year in the ninth inning Sunday, bumping his major league-leading batting average to .368 and slugging percentage to .627.
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The five years and $51 million remaining on McCutchen's deal – from this point forth, all references to contracts are from the 2013 season and beyond, and the numbers include the cost of option buyouts – represent arguably the greatest non-Longoria bargain with regards to cost and performance. At 25 years old, McCutchen is in the midst of a remarkable season – you can argue he's been better than Trout – that can be summed up thusly: Over the last 50 years, only George Brett, Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker, Todd Helton and Barry Bonds have finished a season with triple-slash numbers as good as his (.368/.429/.629).
On the back end of McCutchen's deal, the Pirates own a $14.5 million option, which they'll almost surely trigger. Even after McCutchen's dreadful September last year, the team kept faith and was rewarded. Had the Pirates waited another year, they might've paid something close to …
3. Matt Kemp money. His deal is the most troublesome to include on this list, not just because of the length (seven years) but the haul ($148 million). The inclusion of Kemp is as much a testament to his talent and his market value – surely he'd have gotten more than Albert Pujols' 10 years and $240 million – than anything.
Agents who don't represent him have mused that Kemp left at least $100 million on the table by signing his extension. Even small-market, budget-conscious teams would take him on at $21.2 million a year. Because this is not like Wells, who signed his infamous seven-year, $126 million extension as a 28-year-old. (Kemp turns 28 in September.) Wells was a good player. Kemp is on the short list of baseball's best. His triple-slash is in McCutchen territory (.348/.414/.648), he plays a premium position (center field, if not all that great) and some of his best years should be on the front end of this deal (unlike Pujols, who has rescued himself admirably from a dreadful start but still won't be OPSing at 1.100 anytime soon).
Still, Kemp's deal isn't even the longest of this list. That belongs to …
4. Ryan Braun and his eight-year, $125.5 million monster of a contract that also includes a $15 million mutual option on a ninth year. Because Braun will turn 29 in November, the risk is significant with him, too. And yet the average annual value of $15.7 million is barely two-thirds of what the Minnesota Twins are paying Joe Mauer annually for the next six seasons, and it's about a million per year less than what Jason Bay got for four years on the free-agent market.
Not only that, Braun's contract is likely to age well because of inflation. Unlike some other big deals, the Milwaukee Brewers structured it to taper toward the end. By the time 2020 rolls around and Braun is making $16 million, that could well be the going rate for a No. 4 starting pitcher or a .450-slugging outfielder.
Of course, Braun's contract not turning into a disaster depends as much on his health as anything. Those final five years, after all, were a $105 million add-on to his original eight-year, $45 million contract that once made a run at King Longoria's. Braun never did topple his majesty. He can take solace in his 29 home runs, .604 slugging percentage and really good lawyers.
Even great council cannot always save you, as …
5. Carlos Gonzalez proved in going against agent Scott Boras' wishes and inking a deal with the Colorado Rockies that now has six years and $76 million left on it. For all of the upheaval in Denver – a GM who doesn't really have GM duties; a four-man rotation that's even worse than the five-man was; and a superstar in Troy Tulowitzki whose eight-year, $144 million deal would be on this list if not for his predilection to getting injured – at least the Rockies have Cargo.
He hits (.326), walks (well on his way to a career high), slugs (.569 with 20 homers), runs (14 of 17 on steals) and can play all three outfield positions (though defensive metrics aren't all that kind to him this season).
Best of all: He's just 26, taking him barely into his 30s and just in time for Boras to land him one more big payday. The thinking was the same with …
6. Jered Weaver, the other big Boras client who bucked free agency to re-sign with a team of which he'd grown too fond to fathom leaving. Were Weaver to hit free agency after this season, like he could've, he would be staring at a payday somewhere in the vicinity of Cole Hamels' six years and $144 million. As it stands, Weaver has four years and $71 million remaining on his contract.
Perhaps now is the time to note two things. First, there is a paucity of pitchers on this list because pitchers are such fragile quantities. If Weaver's elbow snaps or his shoulder barks tomorrow, he is instantaneously ejected and perhaps even thrown onto a list of bad contracts. There are three more pitchers on this list, and their inclusion comes with solid rationale. Promise. Second, we spent a fair bit of time culling this list, in consultation with executives, and there were some notable cuts, three more of whom are pitchers. We'd be remiss not to include them. So the second 10, in alphabetical order, with details following:
• Jose Bautista, three years, $42 million plus a one-year, $14 million option: No. 11 for sure, and easily the hardest cut. Just a superb, forward-thinking contract from Alex Anthopoulos.
• Madison Bumgarner, five years, $33.5 million plus a two-year, $22.5 million option: Young, healthy and excellent easily could turn into older, not healthy and overpaid.
• Jay Bruce, four years, $41 million plus a one-year, $13 million option: Lots of home runs at a great value.
• Miguel Cabrera, three years, $65 million: A premium slugger paid at a reasonable rate in his ages 30-32 seasons? Sign us up.
• Yoenis Cespedes, three years, $29.5 million: Not even the A's expected this much.
• Johnny Cueto, two years, $17.4 million plus a one-year, $10 million option: If the NL Cy Young voting were held today, he'd have to be the winner, right?
• Gio Gonzalez, four years, $37.75 plus a two-year, $24 million option: Bumgarner, ibid
• Matt Holliday, four years, $68 million plus a one-year, $17 million option: Overpay? Hardly. He's as good as ever, with a career-best 158 OPS+ so far this season.
•Dustin Pedroia, two years, $20 million plus a one-year, $11 million option: While he's struggling significantly this season, he's a good value bet going forward.
• Ben Zobrist, one year, $5.5 million with two options of $7 million and $7.5 million: Another Andrew Friedman special, for a player whose versatility is as valuable as anything.
As for Weaver, because he missed nearly a month with a back strain, his season has gone about as under the radar as a 14-1 record with a major league-leading 2.29 ERA can. Weaver does not strike hitters out with the efficiency of Stephen Strasburg. He does not have a signature pitch like R.A. Dickey's knuckleball. He does not blow you away with 100-mph rocket fuel like …
7. Justin Verlander or dazzle with pure stuff like Felix Hernandez, both of whom merit a spot on this list for three reasons: They're superb, their contracts are short and they're relatively cheap. Their contracts are almost identical, Verlander's for two years and $40 million and Hernandez's for two and $39.5 million.
This will be the final appearance for both on this list, certainly. Detroit plans on exploring an extension for Verlander within the coming year, according to sources, and Seattle surely will do the same for Hernandez, even if it's far less likely a proposition. Verlander is primed to reach free agency after the 2014 season going on 32 years old, likely limiting the length of his deal. If King Felix hits the open market as a healthy 28-year-old, he will command the biggest pitching contract in history, plenty more per year than …
8. Salvador Perez stands to make over the entirety of his current deal. Perez, actually, is as good a bet as any to challenge Longoria's throne. The 22-year-old catcher is one of two superb deals struck by Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore this season – Alcides Escobar, as an All-Star-caliber shortstop at $9 million for the next three years, plus two options for $11.75 million, is No. 21 on this list – not just because of the money but the flexibility it affords.
By signing Perez before his first full year of service, the Royals were able to get him on the cheap. He's locked in the next four years for $6.25 million. Then Kansas City has a trio of options at $3.75 million, $5 million and $6 million. For a kid who over his first 274 plate appearances hit .329/.358/.488 and provided above-average defense and game-calling, the prospect of spending only $21 million for the next seven seasons of his services induces jealousy across the game.
The one snag: health. Perez missed the season's first 2½ months following knee surgery, and nothing can derail a catcher's career as easily as bad knees. Perez, listed at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, needs more than anything to maintain his conditioning, keep those legs fit and hope the wear and tear of catching doesn't do to them what the unnatural motion of pitching could do to …
9. Matt Moore's arm. Putting Moore on the list is a leap of faith. One executive said his name was the only one that gave him pause. After a rough start to the season – Moore's ERA over his first nine starts this year was 5.07 – he has shown why Tampa Bay guaranteed him $12.5 million over the next four years with another $23.5 million available over three options.
Since May 28, Moore has thrown 74 2/3 innings and struck out 70 with a 3.01 ERA. He still walks too many – 60 in 124 1/3 innings this season – but his pure stuff is about as good as it gets from a left-hander, bested perhaps only by Kershaw and David Price.
The Rays' success over the last half-decade is a three-headed monster of successful bets on long-term deals, great drafting (like Moore in the eighth round) and keeping pitchers healthy. Tampa Bay isn't some sort of success-by-happenstance story. This is orchestrated, quite brilliantly, and …
10. Evan Longoria personifies it. Longoria is still just 26 years old, and he was off to his typical scorching start (.329/.433/.561) before he got hurt.
In his absence, the Rays have used Zobrist, B.J. Upton, Matt Joyce, Jeff Keppinger, Hideki Matsui, Luke Scott, Drew Sutton, Carlos Pena and Brooks Conrad in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots in which Longoria usually hits. On Sunday, they lost 1-0 in 10 innings to Baltimore, limited to three hits by 28-year-old journeyman Miguel Gonzalez, Darren O'Day, Troy Patton, Luis Ayala and Jim Johnson. They need Longoria. Badly. Even more if the back spasms that forced Zobrist to leave Sunday's game are serious.
The Rays sit two games back of the two wild-card spots currently held by Oakland and Detroit, with the Los Angeles Angels and Orioles to leapfrog. In the AL, only the A's have scored fewer than Tampa Bay's 434 runs. The next 10 days are crucial to Tampa Bay's playoff hopes, with three games against Toronto and six at Minnesota and Seattle. After that, it's 29 of 45 games against teams over .500 – and of the 16 against sub-.500 teams, 13 of those are Boston and Toronto, which could be above even by that point.
It's not going to be easy for the Rays, though, really, when is it ever? They're here because they're run right, because they've got three of the kindest contracts in the game. Long live the kings of value.
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