Major League Baseball has a natural foothold in Florida, its warm climate attracting teams for spring training since the 1880s. In some ways, the state still seems more comfortable with visitors than permanent residents.
Twice in the 1990s, baseball gave expansion teams to Florida, first to Miami in 1993 and then to Tampa Bay five years later. This season, for the third year in a row, the Marlins finished last in the National League in attendance and the Rays finished last in the American League.
Now the teams share another grim distinction: both have traded the most decorated player in franchise history this month. The Rays sent third baseman Evan Longoria to the San Francisco Giants in a five-player deal on Wednesday, nine days after the Marlins officially dealt outfielder Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees.
Longoria, 32, has played 200 more games in a Tampa Bay uniform than anyone else. He arrived halfway through the franchise’s history, just as the team rebranded itself as the Rays, from the Devil Rays, in 2008. Longoria ended that season in the World Series, but the Rays have not won a playoff series since.
They have also consistently drawn small crowds to Tropicana Field, an outdated venue with an inconvenient St. Petersburg location for many fans. Yet their ongoing attendance woes did not make it easier for the Rays to part with their franchise leader in home runs, runs batted in, runs scored and total bases.
“We have a fan base here that’s very passionate, and Evan is somebody that they connected to and they looked up to, and they took a lot of pride in having as part of this organization,” Rays General Manager Erik Neander said.
Longoria was the Rays’ franchise leader in wins above replacement, as Stanton was for the Marlins, who have also traded the All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna and second baseman Dee Gordon as they slash payroll under new ownership. The rancor never seems to end in Miami, where season-ticket holders grilled the Marlins’ new chief executive – Derek Jeter, the former Yankees captain – in a town-hall meeting Tuesday night.
“I can’t sit here and say trust me,” Jeter told the crowd, according to The Miami Herald. “You don’t know me. You earn trust over time. I know how organizations are sustainable over time. I know you have been through a lot.”
Marlins fans have felt the exhilaration of World Series championships in 1997 and 2003, with periodic bursts of extravagant spending. Both title teams, though, were ultimately broken up in a series of cost-cutting trades, and the Marlins have not returned to the postseason since their last World Series win. The core of Stanton, Ozuna and Gordon never produced a winning record, and instead of propping it up, Jeter is starting over in hopes of reviving a barren farm system.
The Rays have taken a different approach. Their payroll has never crept above $80 million, yet they were resourceful enough to reach the playoffs three times in the five seasons after their A.L. pennant.
While other stars came and went, the Rays made Longoria their centerpiece, signing him to a bargain nine-year contract within his first year in the majors. Last season he began a more lucrative extension, for six years and $100 million, but the Rays saw little hope that Longoria could help reverse a discouraging trend.
After four consecutive seasons with at least 90 wins, they have endured four losing seasons in a row. With the Yankees poised to challenge the Boston Red Sox atop the American League East — and the Houston Astros and the Cleveland Indians topping 100 victories last season — the time seems right for the Rays to retreat. Next to go could be starters Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi.
“As we look at where we are, competitively, in the landscape of the American League, it led to a lot of questions about, realistically, where we are heading into 2018?” Neander said. “That being said, we have a lot of young talent, and we have a lot of guys coming. But there’s going to be some bumps in the road. There’s going to be some time needed for those guys to develop.”
In exchange for Longoria, the Rays acquired the top infield prospect Christian Arroyo, the veteran center fielder Denard Span and the pitching prospects Matt Krook and Stephen Woods. They also sent cash to the Giants, who shed the $13 million they owed Span for the final year of his contract.
Arroyo, 22, was the central figure in the deal for the Rays. He was born in Tampa and ranked by MLB.com as the Giants’ best prospect. He is a career .300 hitter in the minors and can play third, shortstop and second, but batted just .192 across 34 games with the Giants last season.
Longoria is coming off one of his worst seasons: a .261 average, 20 homers and a .737 on-base plus slugging percentage, the second-lowest of his career. But he still gives a jolt to a Giants offense that ranked last in the majors in slugging percentage in 2017. That doomed the team to 98 losses, tied with Detroit for the most in the majors and just two shy of its franchise record.
The Giants knew where to turn for help. They had first worked out a trade with the Marlins for Stanton, but could not convince him to approve the deal. The other team in Florida obliged, though the parting was bittersweet.
“He has really reached and touched a lot of players and coaches and staff throughout the organization,” Manager Kevin Cash said of Longoria. “We’re forever grateful.”
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