April 12, 2008 was both a momentous and typical day in Tampa Bay Rays history.
It was momentous, because Evan Longoria jogged onto a major league field for the first time that day. He banged out his first hit in the Show, launching a spectacular debut campaign that would see him bash 27 homers, play spectacular defense, make the All-Star team, and bag the AL Rookie of the Year award.
It was typical, because April 12 marked the Rays' 11th game that season. In a wild coincidence, that also happened to be the earliest date that Tampa Bay could call up their superstar prospect while also delaying his free-agency clock by a full year.
Developing great young talent while pinching pennies like Scrooge on steroids have been dual hallmarks of the Rays franchise for much of the past decade. But more recently, that talent pipeline has dried up, turning a team that made the playoffs four times in six years into one that's finished below .500 in each of the past four. Fail to continue producing great players while also maintaining a shoestring budget, and you will eventually run into excruciating decisions.
On Wednesday, we got one of the most painful decisions in franchise history. Longoria, the greatest player in franchise history by a huge margin, is now a San Francisco Giant. Christian Arroyo, Denard Span, Stephen Woods and Matt Krook are now Rays.
Longoria dramatically upgrades a black-hole position for the Giants. Still, it's not clear how good Longoria will be over the duration of a contract that runs through 2022. Last season was the worst of his career, as Longoria hit just .261/.313/.424, his 20 home runs marking the second-lowest total ever. And while he did slug .521 with a career-best 36 bombs in 2016, it's now three of the past four seasons where Longoria has rated as pretty close to a league-average hitter, a far cry from the offensive dynamo he was in his prime. The Giants are paying for Longoria's age-33 through age-37 seasons, and typical player age curves suggest that things won't improve much from here, but will start to slip even further soon.
The good news for the Giants is that the price of upgrading from Pablo Sandoval and a band of inanimate carbon rods wasn't all that high. Arroyo is the main attraction in the deal, as a 22-year-old prospect with promising raw skills. On the flip side, he hit a punchless .274/.316/.373 with three home runs in his last full season (2016, at Double-A Richmond), then missed much of last season with injuries. Arroyo's calling card is his ability to rope line drives, but he's also displayed iffy power and plate discipline during his professional career. Meanwhile, Woods and Krook project as relief prospects, the Rays will have to eat the $13 million left on Span's contract, and eat a to-be-determined amount of money on Longoria's deal.
It's still a weird fit for San Francisco, though. The Giants trotted out the National League's oldest collection of position players last season, and Longoria's approaching his mid-30s. They lost 98 games last year, and their ugly and onerous collection of salary commitments make it tough to imagine how they can collect enough talent to bounce back into contention in 2018. Hell, if they wanted a veteran third baseman who can mash, they could have signed free agent Todd Frazier, held onto Arroyo, and maybe ended up spending last money in the end too.
If the deal seems questionable for the Giants, it looks downright sad for the Rays. Yes, Tampa Bay would have been an extreme long-shot to win the AL East next season given how good the Yankees and Red Sox look right now. And yes, getting out from a half-decade of expensive and potentially painful decline years is always a sound course of action for a team that perpetually ranks at or near the bottom of MLB's revenue charts.
But if you're a Rays fan who might've imagined Longoria playing his entire (potential) Hall of Fame career in one uniform, the trade still stinks. Longoria was the linchpin of that glorious six-year stretch that saw Tampa Bay go from a laughing-stock franchise to a next-generation Moneyball story, as the Rays parlayed great scouting and player development, shrewd trades, and a knack for squeezing the most of out of every dollar into sustained success. Play out the rest of that contract, put up a few more solid seasons, and you could've envisioned a statue of Longoria outside a new Tampa ballpark in 2028.
Hell, this alone might've been enough to earn a statue.
Instead, Rays fans get a kick in the pants. Longoria's first long-term deal was historic and bold, with team management securing a verbal agreement before Longoria even played his first big league game. He was the face of the franchise, the greatest bargain in baseball for years, then a $100 million rebuttal to the argument that the poorest teams couldn't retain its best players. All of that ended on Wednesday.
Moreover, the Rays get a stark reminder of the razor-thin margin for error that plagues a revenue-starved team playing in the same division as New York and Boston. Tampa Bay getting to the World Series in 2008 and adding three more October dances required a dynamic, young rotation that came together so perfectly, it went two and a half years without a single DL stint at one point. It took a utility infielder like Ben Zobrist developing into an unlikely star. It took Dan Johnson becoming a ginger-haired, late-season assassin whose highlight reel was so extensive, you could just call him The Great Pumpkin. It took Longoria developing into one of the best players on the planet, and an unforgettable force for an organization that was soaked in misery for the first decade of its existence.
Now, the teardown looks ready to begin in earnest. With Longoria gone, staff ace Chris Archer and All-Star closer Alex Colome look likely to head elsewhere soon too. Other recognizable faces might soon follow. And the moves to come will need to be pretty close to perfect. Because the Yanks and Sox are both young and loaded, because the Rays play in the worst-located and least-attended stadium in the majors (with a meager TV deal to boot), and because you can't rely on good fortune every time you try to rebuild.
When you're as financially overmatched as the Rays are, success becomes that much sweeter. That was the case in '08, when the Rays went from worst to first. That was the case in '11, when they pulled off one of the most miraculous September comebacks in baseball history, capped by a Game 162 for the ages.
Maybe some day, the Rays will pull off another all-timer Cinderella story. It's just that right now, with the heart and soul of the franchise shipped off in a salary dump and a bunch more trades potentially coming soon, that day looks really far away.