Value in baseball is relative. Robinson Cano, for example, is expected to contribute plenty of on-field value to the Seattle Mariners, but they’re paying for every bit of it (and then some) thanks to his $240 million contract. True value comes when teams can get contributions from players that exceed the salaries the player is earning, such as Mike Trout‘s making approximately $1 million total in his first two years total despite being the game’s best player in each of those seasons.
But Trout is an outlier, and the Angels’ insanely beneficial cost/benefit position is about to change as he moves out of his cost-controlled years and into either wildly expensive arbitration years or a massive long-term contract. The Angels will still get his production, they’ll just very soon be paying him considerably more to do so. If we’re searching for the true king of excess value, we need an elite player who not only has been already been underpaid relative to his production, but one who is signed to a deal that will likely continue to underpay him for years to come.
As we unveil baseball’s top 10 third basemen today as part of the BBTN100, we’re not just pointing out that Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays is the best overall third baseman in baseball. We’re noting both that he’s been the most valuable player in the game over the six seasons since his debut, and that the incredibly team-friendly deals he’s had with Tampa Bay make him still the best value in the game.
A bargain, to date
Let’s start by quantifying the “most valuable player in the game” part, and we’ll focus only on hitters. Since 2008, no position player has been more valuable overall than Longoria, who has put up 36.1 WAR (per FanGraphs) even despite a 2012 season cut in half by a hamstring injury. That’s not because he’s the best hitter — Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and others top him — or even the best fielder (hello, Yadier Molina), but because he’s the best package of value on both sides of the ball. As a very good defensive third baseman, he’s able to contribute far more fielding value than a similarly talented first baseman (of which there are few) could.
Since Longoria’s six seasons happen to be the first six of his career, when player salaries are artificially depressed by an inability of players to shop themselves on the open market, and since the Rays took a then-unprecedented step by signing him to a fantastically team-friendly, six-year, $17.5 million contract just six days into his career, the Rays have received more bang for their buck than anyone else, as shown in the chart to the right.
Not only does Longoria lead the majors in WAR since he entered the league, but he’s also produced the most per dollar of any of his peers at the top of the WAR leaderboard.
Because these players were all at different stages of their careers — Beltre, for example, first reached free agency before Longoria was even drafted — they aren’t all on a level playing field as far as earning capability. So while it’s perhaps unfair to say that Longoria has offered more value per dollar than the rest of these players, because the others could not have been paid under the same conditions, it doesn’t change the real-world truth that the massive excess value Tampa Bay received here played a large part in its small-market success since, not so coincidentally, 2008.
Of the top 10 players per FanGraphs’ WAR since Longoria debuted (see table), only Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist have also been worth more than 1 WAR per million dollars earned, but neither is as good of a bet to continue that going forward as Longoria is. Why? In large part because he is more than four years younger than Zobrist and more than two years younger than Pedroia. Heading into his age-28 season, Longoria should have plenty of peak years remaining.
A bright future
Longoria is still playing under his rookie year extension, which turned from a six-year, $17.6 million deal into a nine-year, $47.5 million contract once the three team-option years attached at the end were guaranteed. Think on that for a second — for the first nine years of what’s looking like a Hall of Fame career (only four third basemen since integration had more WAR through 27), Tampa Bay will have spent less than what the Phillies are dropping on Ryan Howard for just this year and next year alone.
Following the 2012 season, the Rays added six years for $100 million, plus a team option for a seventh year, keeping him with the club through at least 2022. Obviously, that makes him somewhat less of a bargain than he had been previously, but remember that while $100 million sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to the $200-plus million contracts given recently to Cano,Prince Fielder and Joey Votto — and it runs through only his age-36 season, as opposed to deals like those for Cano or Pujols that run into their 40s.
Using Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, we can see that Longoria is projected to remain at a star level for the next few years and to be at least above-average (where “average” is defined as 2.0 WAR) for the next eight seasons, or nearly the entirety of his contract. Since Longoria has already been worth more than 6 WAR twice and more than 7 WAR twice more, these might even be underselling him somewhat:
Longoria’s projected WAR
If we accept these projections at face value, that’s an additional 33.6 WAR for approximately $130 million, or 3.87 million per WAR. As Szymborski wrote last month in examining Mike Trout, 1 WAR on the current open market is worth approximately $5.45 million. Right there, the Rays are coming out ahead, but the open market is not stagnant. Including, as Szymborski did, an inflation rate of 5 percent annually, 1 WAR by the end of the contract might be worth north of $8 million. That would mean that the Rays would come out ahead every year through 2020, essentially pay for expected value in 2021 and come out slightly behind in 2022. By that point, if the Rays have enjoyed nearly 15 years of underpaying elite performance from a team legend, they’ll surely not mind a single year of being on the other side.
Simply dividing dollars by WAR is imperfect, because every win is not of identical value to every team in every situation — the 91st win that is the difference between making the playoffs or not is worth far more than the 71st win that pushes them into fourth place — but it’s a quick and effective way to identify players who are providing their teams with excess value.
Longoria has been atop that list for nearly his entire career, and with apologies to Andrew McCutchen, also signed to a team-friendly deal but only through age 30, he’ll still be there for years to come.
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