Trading a franchise face isn’t easy, or fun

Longoria---shown here running it off with the bomb that sent the Rays to the 2011 postseason---goes to the Giants with the Rays rebuilding . . .

Longoria—shown here running it off with the bomb that sent the Rays to the 2011 postseason—goes to the Giants with the Rays rebuilding . . .

When franchise faces change franchises, it’s jarring no matter what the circumstances that prompt the changes. Even if you have lots of advance knowledge that it’s going to happen. Even if the worst kept secret in baseball is that one of them is going to change addresses.

The latter applied to Giancarlo Stanton for, oh, about the entire season before he was dealt to the Yankees. Even before the group featuring former Yankee franchise face Derek Jeter bought the Marlins, it seemed a question of where, not whether Stanton would go.

Enter Evan Longoria, the franchise face of the Rays no more, now that he’s been traded to the Giants for left-side infield prospect Christian Arroyo and veteran outfielder Denard Span. It makes baseball sense for both sides, even if you buy that the Rays really feel a familial loss by dealing Longoria. The Giants at third base have been something between a city dump and a nuclear waste; the Rays are looking at a rebuild.

Longoria could be just the most popular piece to go in a movement that might also send pitching ace Chris Archer looking for a new address, and nobody with any degree of baseball smarts would deny Archer would bring the Rays a haul of prospects back that could jerk the franchise inside-out back to credibility.

The Rays won 80 in 2017, short enough of real contention. They look to lose the like of Alex Cobb, Lucas Duda, Logan Morrison, Tommy Hunter, and Steve Cishek. And, as the Tampa Bay Times’s Marc Topkin notes, they’d need to improve by six wins at minimum on a limited payroll to hit real contention. Dealing Longoria, Topkin says, “brings back an intriguing prospect and it saves money that can be used more wisely when the playoffs are in sight.”

As for further fiscal sense, the Giants probably didn’t get themselves as much relief as they think by moving Span. He offsets some of Longoria’s cost, and Longoria’s $13 million annual salary is a bargain by today’s baseball standards, as Topkin reminds us, but let’s remember Longoria is still five years and $87 million to go on the extension he signed in 2012 but which didn’t kick in until 2017.

Longoria’s offense has slipped in the past couple of years but he’s still above average with his glove; he was worth +11 defensive runs saved and a third Gold Glove in 2017. Considering what the Giants had at third base—Arroyo not quite Show ready, the apparent completion of prodigal Panda Pablo Sandoval’s collapse, and a prospect named Ryder Jones who may not be Show ready yet, either, following the departure of serviceable Eduardo Nunez in August—Longoria is an early Christmas gift.

If only he wasn’t 32. He puts the Giants at this writing committing considerable money still to such elders as Brandon Belt (coming on 30), Buster Posey (31), Brandon Crawford (likewise), Johnny Cueto (32), Jeff Samardzija (33), Mark Melancon (likewise), and Hunter Pence (35). And they’re due to earn a combined $128.9 million in 2018, according to Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Tayler.

The years to follow immediately won’t be much money relief either, Tayler continues: “The Giants already have $118.4 million committed in ‘19, $114.4 million in ’20 and $75.6 million in ‘21—and after the ‘19 season, they’ll have to free up some cash to pay free-agent-to-be Madison Bumgarner, currently working on a dirt-cheap contract ($12 million in both 2018 and ’19).”

Rays fans, of course, are going to miss Longoria, who’s been part of enough big moments in the franchise’s still-young life. And if the team is indeed hitting the rebuild button, they’re going to have two seasons, maybe more, of having to bear with a struggling team in a ballpark that isn’t even close to the tenth most lovable park in the business.

Dealing franchise faces or letting them walk in free agency is difficult but hardly unheard-of. How have other franchise face moves worked in the past? Let’s have a look:

Vladimir Guerrero—Arguably the face of the Montreal Expos before he hit free agency, Guerrero and was scooped up by the Angels. He became the Angels’ face almost at once, winning the American League’s Most Valuable Player award his first season in Anaheim, and hitting a mammoth grand slam in the division series that looked for awhile as though it might keep the Red Sox from sweeping the set.

Vlad the Impaler would have three more 100+ RBI seasons in Anaheim and produce admirably through assorted injuries until the Angels, too, let him go as a free agent. He had a decent season with rival Texas, a mediocre one in Baltimore, and a couple of independent league years, finally retiring officially as an Angel, signing a one-day contract in 2014. He’s on the threshold of election to the Hall of Fame.

Willie Mays—Does anyone really doubt Mays was the face of the Giants for the better part of two decades? Yet the Giants finally let the Hall of Famer go in a deal with the Mets for 1972, when the team’s then-precarious finances meant they couldn’t afford to keep him in the sunset of his career.

One of baseball’s most heartbreaking sights was seeing Mays return to the town where his career began and took off in earnest but play like a hobbled imitation of himself, while becoming distant in the clubhouse. He knew it, too, retiring after the 1973 World Series. Something that I never feared: that I were ever to quit baseball. But, as you know, there always comes a time for someone to get out. And I look at these kids over there, the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, and it tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.

So said Mays on Willie Mays Night in late September 1973. He wasn’t the only one near tears.

Dale Murphy—When injuries began taking their toll, the Braves traded their 1980s  franchise face to the Phillies, where he spent three uneventful seasons before becoming a Rockie for their inaugural season and bowing out meekly after it. It was a heartbreaking free fall for a high character player who looked for about half the 1980s as though he were destined for the Hall of Fame.

Albert Pujols—The Cardinals let their longtime franchise face walk as a free agent after their stupefying 2011 World Series triumph, toward which Pujols had a big hand by whacking three home runs in Game Three—from the sixth inning forward. That winter he signed a ten-year, $254 million deal with the Angels, after the Cardinals would offer only five.

In his first Angels season, after a slow start and the advent of Mike Trout, he hit thirty out, drove in 105, compiled 4.8 wins above a replacement-level player. Then heel and ankle issues kicked in in earnest, which haven’t really sapped Pujols’s power but have sapped his once-formidable ability to reach base otherwise and his considerable ability to play first base.

The Hall of Famer-to-be has four years to play on the deal, with a ten-year personal services contract to follow. The Cardinals may have been right about offering only five, but nobody really knew it for dead last certain at the time.

Jackie Robinson—It seemed almost like a spite deal, considering that his long-battered knees told Robinson it was time to retire after the 1956 season. He delayed making it official out of respect to Look, to whom he’d agreed to tell the story of his retirement. Then the Dodgers threw the proverbial monkey wrench into the works: they traded him to the Giants.

While he delayed making it official, the Dodgers traded their pioneering Hall of Famer to the rival Giants, of all people, which would have been something like the Giants deciding the Dodgers needed Willie Mays more than they did. And the Giants were sweetening the incentive by offering Robinson $40,000 and maybe more to play in 1957.

A remark from Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi forced Robinson’s hand: “I know the guy and he likes money. Now that Look‘s paid him, he’ll play so he can collect from the Giants, too.” Never a money-obsessed man, Robinson obeyed his knees and made his retirement official. ”From now on, I’ll be just another fan—a Brooklyn fan,” he wrote in Look. The Dodgers and the Giants, of course, moved to California a year after Robinson’s retirement.

Tom Seaver—Face of the Mets? Seaver was nicknamed The Franchise for his leadership in bringing the Mets to their first period of respectability (and helping win that miracle World Series in 1969). And, in the still-most infamous trade in Mets history, Seaver went to the Reds in June 1977 for pitcher Pat Zachry, infielder Doug Flynn, and outfielders Steve Henderson and Dan Norman in an extremely lopsided deal.

None of those players combined was worth what Seaver was to the Mets or would be to the Reds, though he pitched splendidly enough for most of his Cincinnati tenure even as the heralded Big Red Machine was broken down and apart. Seaver would enjoy ten more seasons of mostly solid pitching after the deal, including a brief return to the Mets, before retiring. The Mets blew that one, too, leaving him unprotected in the controversial free agency compensation pool, meaning Seaver wouldn’t win his 300th game as a Met but as a White Sox.

Seaver finished his career with the Red Sox; a brief return to the Mets for spring training 1987 ended in his retirement. There was probably no more peculiar sight in baseball in 1986 than Seaver—who didn’t pitch during the Red Sox’s postseason—sitting in the visitors’ dugout in a Red Sox jacket in Shea Stadium, the park where he’d forged the bulk of his Hall of Fame case as the Met nicknamed The Franchise.

Evan Longoria isn’t Vladimir Guerrero, Willie Mays, Dale Murphy, Albert Pujols, Jackie Robinson, or Tom Seaver, of course. That won’t make it sting any less for Rays fans while watching their team rebuild without him. To them, he’s equal in spirit if not quite in performance to a Guerrero, a Mays, a Murphy, a Pujols, a Robinson, a Seaver.

On the day he belted the game-winning home run that sent the Rays to a 2011 American League division series and put paid to that season’s stupefying Red Sox collapse while he was at it, Longoria looked like Superman in Tampa Bay. That’s a memory no one can trade away.

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