Irrelevant preface: this is an exceptionally difficult article for me to write.
My emotional investment in Tampa Bay Rays baseball over the years has precipitated elation as much as heartbreak, satisfaction as much as disappointment. It’s worth every single unpredictable moment. Amidst the flurry of changes from the front office to player personnel and everything in between since that miraculous pennant run of 2008, one player has remained the constant, the same player that I’ve relentlessly attempted to defend despite a painfully obvious deterioration of production.
Evan Longoria has enjoyed a fine career. Following his injury-plagued 2012 season — his fifth in the major leagues — in which he generated a 148 OPS+ despite being hobbled by a hamstring tear, the consensus impression regarding Longoria was that health was the only thing holding him back from legitimate eminence. The former All-Star and habitual MVP candidate has played in 160+ games every season since.
The perennial accolades have disappeared. Longoria’s once-menacing presence in the middle of the Rays lineup has progressively lost its influence. The most glaring and perhaps discouraging aspect of Longoria’s collapse has been the virtual nonexistence of power over the past few seasons. Longoria had never produced a slugging percentage below .495 in any single season until 2014, when it fell all the way to .404. Take a look at the aggregate of the two parts of Longoria’s career — we’ll call it the “good half” and the “bad half “– starting from where it all began:
And now the bad half:
An argument can be made that a consistent lack of protection over recent years has contributed to Longoria’s decreased offensive output — I’ve naively hung on to a similar sentiment for years. However, even though there might be an extent of validity to that opinion, it’s Longoria’s gradually diminishing walk rate that tells the story.
If Longoria is indeed still the run-producing power threat we knew him to be and is merely a victim of his organization’s failure to field a competent lineup around him, shouldn’t he be walking a lot? Instead, his walk percentage has steadily decreased since 2011. The reasoning behind this might be two-fold. It’s time to consider the possibility that opposing pitchers are no longer overcome with anxiety when the thunderous violin chorus of Longoria’s walk-up music rings through the Tropicana Field rafters, but, at the same time, he’s limited himself tremendously with poor plate discipline.
Longoria’s overall swing percentage spiked rather dramatically in 2014, as did his O-Swing percentage (percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone). At a point in time in which it made all the sense in the world to practice patience, Longoria inexplicably chased out of the strike zone at a career-worst rate, explaining the slow disintegration of what should have been an exemplary walk percentage.
The more I watched Longoria battle through each plate appearance in 2015, the more I became uneasy that there might be something more going on here, something real. It’s obvious that Longoria has tried to do too much at the plate, but isn’t it possible that this might be an attempt to compensate for ability that just simply isn’t there any longer? The evidence is piling up — plummeting home run to fly ball ratio, mediocre OBP, etc — and it points to just one painful conclusion: Evan Longoria is on the decline.
The Rays inked a substantial contract extension with their cornerstone player following the 2012 season that totaled in excess of $100 million and placed him under team control through 2023. There’s little doubt that the discrepancy between Longoria’s value and what this money seemed to indicate about Longoria’s value was, at the time, significant. Prior to the 2013 season, Longoria had already amassed nearly 30 wins above replacement and was thought to be one of the most valuable commodities in baseball.
It’s hard to believe how much has changed since then. All of the sudden, that “team-friendly” contract doesn’t exactly look satisfying on the club’s ever-delicate payroll books. The Rays still owe Longoria $105.5 million over the next seven seasons — not including the $13MM team option at the back-end. Even after this slump, Longoria could likely still command a larger sum in free agency based on name distinction alone, but it’s indisputable that his market-value has taken a hit, and the Rays must act quickly.
Making a suggestion like this is not something I ever expected to do. Could the Rays even find a viable trading partner considering the circumstances? I get the impression that the window is closing. Moving on is never easy, but growth is impossible without change.