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Perspective: Longoria decision all money?04/09/2008 11:00 AM ET
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
It's a bonus for Triple-A fans. But is it good for baseball?
Those were the thoughts that ran through my head when I saw the following Tampa Bay Rays transaction:
3/24/08 -- Reassigned INF Evan Longoria to Minor League camp.
When Spring Training began, I assumed -- and I'm sure I wasn't alone -- that Evan Longoria's days as a Minor Leaguer were over after 198 games and just over 730 at-bats. It seemed fairly apparent that his time at the hot corner in Tampa had come.
I don't think we were jumping to conclusions. It's not just that he hit .304 in those games with a .934 OPS or that he reached Triple-A in his first full professional season. There were other obvious signs. The first was the early announcement that Akinori Iwamura would be moving from third to second base for the 2008 season. With all due respect, I'm pretty sure no one thought that was to make room for Willy Aybar in the lineup.
Then there was the news that Longoria had officially been told he would be competing for the third-base job this spring. At that point, it seemed a fait accompli. Unless he was an abject failure in big-league camp, the job was his for the taking.
When he performed well in Grapefruit League action, finishing with a .262 average and 1.003 OPS, I figured that clinched it. That and the fact he stuck around for nearly all of big-league camp. Then the whispers started that he might be sent down to start the year in Triple-A. Why?
Longoria wasn't alone. Many other top prospects were vying for 25-man roster spots in Spring Training. Colby Rasmus, Jay Bruce and Cameron Maybin were all competing for jobs. With the exception of Rasmus -- who it seems was told from the start that it was going to be an uphill battle -- no one matched Longoria's on-field performance. Players in the Rays clubhouse wanted Longoria on the team, feeling he gave them the best chance to win on a daily basis. Those whispers got louder until the official announcement was made that Longoria would indeed start the year in Durham. What made people grumble was the likely reason for the decision.
That was the prime motivator, plain and simple, to some onlookers. If the Rays send Longoria down for a while -- say, until the end of May -- he would not be eligible for arbitration for an additional year (and would also be ineligible for "Super Two" status, or early eligibility for arbitration), pushing his first year of potential free agency back to 2014. These are valid reasons. Yet it is troubling if they were the only reasons Longoria is a Bull and not a Ray right now.
The organization claims money wasn't the only deciding factor. When discussions about Longoria's future arose, the financial situation did not come up -- at least not in player development circles. The decision to send him down was for Longoria's long-term success, not so the Rays could save some cash.
The third baseman has had just over 100 at-bats above Double-A and just the 733 total in his pro career. That's not a lot of experience. The Brewers' Ryan Braun had a great spring in 2007, but was sent down only to explode on the NL scene when being called up in late May. There is also the experience of Alex Gordon, who hit the Royals' roster on Opening Day and struggled out of the gates.
There is one major flaw in this comparison with Braun. The NL Rookie of the Year was having moderate-to-serious defensive issues at the hot corner, and it was perfectly reasonable that he go down to work on his defensive play. He wasn't brought up until injuries and non-production made his call-up a necessity. Defense is not an issue for the sure-handed Longoria. In addition, Braun wasn't told at the start of that spring that he was competing for the full-time job.
And maybe that's the key thing. It's not necessarily a problem that it happened, but how it was handled. The Rays have every right to send Longoria down. He's been a pro for just a year and a half and he's only 22. And the cash they'll save is significant for an organization that doesn't have the revenue streams of, say, the Yankees.
Back in January, Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman stated he wanted to have a plan in place regarding Longoria before Spring Training began. Manager Joe Madden seemed to want to let it play out during the spring. Who won? Both? Neither?
If Friedman and those who control the organization's purse strings knew that Longoria was going to start the year in Durham to delay starting his service time clock, they shouldn't have told him he was competing for a job. It's certainly not the first time financial issues were taken into consideration regarding personnel moves. But had the Rays just told Longoria up-front that he would back to Triple-A after soaking in the big-league camp experience, this kind of knee-jerk reaction to the news could have been avoided.
Again, the organization denies this is what happened. Rays management saw something during Spring Training that made it feel Longoria needed more time to prepare for the Majors, and that further Triple-A seasoning was best for him and for the organization in the long-term.
I hope they're right. There's a lot to like about the direction Tampa is headed these days, and it would be a shame if the decision was based solely on money when Longoria's presence could help the Rays compete in the ultra-tough AL East. I can't imagine it would sit well in the clubhouse if a player who belonged was being kept in the Minors just to fend off arbitration for a year.
My guess is that, as with so many things in life, the truth lies somewhere in between. There's little question that money issues had something to do with the decision. But I also think the initial plan was to let him honestly compete. Maybe it was the plan of those who don't write the checks in the organization, but I don't think for a second that the decision to send Longoria down was made before pitchers and catchers reported.
In the end, what made this decision controversial is that it harkened back to a previous era. Back at the end of 2005, Delmon Young complained -- all too bitterly and publicly for a teenager -- about not being called up from Durham at the end of the season. Young was 19 and had already reached Triple-A in his first full season. He hit .242 in August and seemed to be out of gas. There was a perfectly good reason not to bring him up at that point.
What made it a story, though, is that members of the Rays' front office -- GM Chuck LaMar and director of player development and scouting Cam Bonifay, to name two -- attended a Durham game late in August. It apparently was an opportunity to communicate openly with Young about why he wasn't being called up and whether the decision was driven by performance or financial considerations. It could have been done privately and much of the subsequent fuss might have been avoided.
When Longoria's reassignment was made public, I'm sure more than one Rays fan thought back to how that episode was handled and figured it was a case of those not learning from history being destined to repeat it.
Don't go down that road. This is not the same management group and things are done a lot differently in this organization these days, almost all for the better. Give Friedman and company the benefit of the doubt on this one, even if it wasn't executed in the smoothest way imaginable. Besides, when Longoria and the Rays celebrate a 2014 title, everyone is going to look back to this time and utter thanks that the third baseman is still around.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.