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Signing players early can be risky, but rewarding for Tampa Bay Rays

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Small market teams have to be creative.

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays (the team we cover here now instead of the Lightning) are and will perennially be a small market team. Their budget will remain small. Even a new stadium in a better location to attract more fans is unlikely to change that by much.

They’ll never have the national fan base that the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs enjoy that drive so much of their revenue. This team will always have to be creative in how they compete. At least until MLB beats the MLBPA into submission on a salary cap and more extensive revenue sharing. But let’s not beat that dead horse.

One way the Rays have been able to do this is through signing young players to long term deals. One of the earliest examples I remember of this for the Rays was the signing of Evan Longoria. Longoria signed a six-year contract with three club option years just six days after making his MLB debut.

At the time, he made a comment that teammate Eric Hinske had planted the seed for him saying something along the lines of “don’t turn down your first contract.” Hinske had also signed a long term deal before ever reaching arbitration when he was with the Toronto Blue Jays. Hinske never topped the $5.625 million he made in the last year of his deal in 2007 after reaching free agency. In fact, he only made $7.6 million over the remaining six years of his career.

There is some wisdom to this for a young player. By signing a long term contract that eats up their arbitration years and probably one to three years of free agency with options, the player guarantees that they will not have to work for a living after they retire from baseball (assuming they don’t squander their fortunes). How many of you are sitting here reading this saying “yeah, I’d like to commit to working the next six years and making $17.5 million. I could retire then!”

With MLB contracts being fully guaranteed, the player could play a game tomorrow and tear every ligament in their knee and never play baseball again and still get every single dollar that they’ve signed for. Or develop the yips and not be able to get the ball from the mound to the plate. Not to mention the volatility that we often see with baseball players’ performance falling off seemingly out of nowhere with no real explanation. There’s security to be had in accepting that first contract.

The downside of course is that the player is giving up money. A young star player that continues to improve and perform every year will most certainly make more money by going through the arbitration process and making it to free agency as early as possible. But until they make it to free agency, they’ll be going year-by-year with their contracts with no guarantee that they’ll make anything the next year. They’ll also be making it more likely that the team will have to trade them at some point because the salary has become too much just as what happened with David Price.

Of course for the team, they are taking on that risk that they could pay a player a lot of money for not a lot on the field. But that’s the exchange they are making for getting the potential gain of underpaying a player through their arbitration years. For the Rays, they have to take this risk and potentially hurt the team in the years to come, just to give themselves a chance to keep their core together for a run. Inevitably, the team will have to be stripped back down and rebuilt once again as the cycle continues.

For Kevin Kiermaier, Blake Snell, and Brandon Lowe, they’re able to breath a little easier knowing that their financial futures have been secured. Whatever happens to them, be it injuries, lack of performance, or something else, they have that security to relax and go about their work in becoming better and performing on the field for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays can breath a little easier knowing that they have these three locked up. The team can plan further ahead knowing what these players will cost and focus on building a team into the future that can become better and perform in the AL East against the Red Sox and Yankees.