The Rays on Monday formally optioned 22-year-old third baseman Evan Longoria back to Triple-A Durham, where he finished 2007 by hitting .269/.398/.490 in 104 at-bats. The long-anticipated move could save Tampa Bay a few dollars down the road by delaying the point in time at which Longoria will qualify for arbitration and, then, free agency.
For their part, the Rays state that the move was purely a baseball decision aimed at getting their top prospect more developmental time. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon told Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times:
"We believe it’s best for Evan to put him in this situation right now, and then we believe that as he goes through this process it will turn out to be the best for him and the best for us. So we’re looking at it to being win-win in our regard when he comes back."
Willy Aybar, who came over in a January trade with the Braves for lefty Jeff Ridgway and who missed all of last season while dealing with substance-abuse issues, stands to hold down third base while Longoria’s away. Joel Guzman and Elliot Johnson could make the team as backups.
By starting in Triple-A, Longoria stands to miss out on the opportunity to accrue big league service time at the outset of his career, service time that will be used to determine his arbitration eligibility after Year Two and his right to free agency after Year Six. While it’s true that most players do not become arbitration eligible until after Year Three, many of the most experienced can become Super Twos. The process is a little complicated, but the Players Association offers a fine explanation:
A player with three or more years of service, but less than six years, may file for salary arbitration. In addition, a player can be classified as a "Super Two" and be eligible for arbitration with less than three years of service. A player with at least two but less than three years of Major League service shall be eligible for salary arbitration if he has accumulated at least 86 days of service during the immediately preceding season and he ranks in the top 17 percent in total service in the class of Players who have at least two but less than three years of Major League service, however accumulated, but with at least 86 days of service accumulated during the immediately preceding season.
Longoria’s Opening-Day assignment is a boon for the Bulls and their fans, but several Rays players weren’t sure of the move’s expediency. Outfielder Jonny Gomes said it most forcefully:
"If I say I commit to winning, he’s on my team for sure. I think everybody wearing a Tampa Bay hat and uniform wants that guy here. I don’t think it’s a good day on the players’ end and for everybody in a uniform."
Longoria batted .262/.407/.595 in 42 spring at-bats, with three homers, three doubles and 10 RBIs.
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