Rays Spending Wisely

When Tampa Bay sent uber-prospect Evan Longoria down to AAA to start the season, eyes rolled. Here we go again, Tampa acting cheap by holding back players in the minors to delay arbitration eligible years, and eventual free agent years. They did the same with Delmon Young a few years back. A tactic that only creates animosity with the player, and creates an image for the entire league about what type of franchise the Rays are.

Surprisingly, by April 12th Longoria found himself starting at 3B, batting third, against the Baltimore Orioles. By the end of the week he had a six-year contract in hand. Talk about turning over a new leaf. The same team scoffed for preventing players from coming to the majors so they can avoid doling out the cash gives an unproven prospect a six year contract in under a week.

The 6-year, $17.5 million pact gives Longoria guaranteed money right through his arbitration eligible seasons, while Tampa locks in a potential star at what may look like bargain basement annual salaries by the time Longoria reaches years five and six, each valued at $11.5 million. Ryan Howard recently garnered $10 million in arbitration, and he’s not even close to year 5 and 6 yet. Not to put that expectation on Longoria, widely considered the top prospect in baseball, but if he evolves into the player most expect the Rays will surely be paying below market value on this contract.

After years of bad free agent signings – remember Vinny Castillo and Greg Vaughn – new owner Stuart Sternberg and General Manager Andrew Friedman finally have the Rays headed in the right direction. In addition to Longoria, Carlos Pena is signed for three seasons, up and coming pitcher James Sheilds is locked up for four years, the club holds options on Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, Japanese import Akinori Iwamura is signed through 2009 with a 2010 club option, and last years top draft pick David Price has a six year deal. Next on the list CF BJ Upton and lefty starter Scott Kazmir, both approaching free agency. With a solid, young nucleus in place, combined with an influx of young pitching on the way from the minors, the Rays are ready to compete.

At slightly over $43 million, Tampa’s 2008 payroll ranks next to last in baseball, only above the Marlins – not much of an accomplishment – but moves like the Longoria signing prove Tampa is committed to winning and heading the right direction. Following the model Cleveland used in the mid-1990’s, buying out the arbitration years on young players to control costs while keeping a young team together, Tampa has taken a calculated risk with a high reward. They are well-positioned to improve each year, possibly compete for a playoff as soon as next season.

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