Before he played in a major-league game, Evan Longoria signed a long-term contract with the Rays. He entered the 2008 season as the No. 2 prospect in baseball, and he signed a six year, $17.5 million contract, with three team options worth $29 million. The result: The Rays will get nine years of Longoria for the price of about two years of Carl Crawford.
The contract did not start a trend. Top prospects like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper didn't arrive in the majors and wonder where their $17-million commitment was. This is because Evan Longoria's real market value is somewhere between $900 million and Belgium.
It's not a contract you'll see too often anymore, especially for position players. If the White Sox had given the same contract to Gordon Beckham, maybe things would be different -- if Longoria represents the risk of leaving money on the table, Beckham would have represented the reward of going for the guaranteed money when it was offered. Until there's a contract like that, though, the Longoria contract will be an anomaly and something of a cautionary tale for young super-prospects.
Salvador Perez was never a super-prospect. Heading into the 2011 season, he was the Royals' No. 17 prospect according to Baseball America. That was in a ridiculously deep system at the time, so he certainly would have ranked higher in other organizations, but he wasn't a can't-miss, top-100 guy. He was usually young for his leagues, but his career minor-league line is .287/.329/.397 -- he was a raw offensive player, to be kind.
In his first 148 at-bats as a rookie, Perez hit .331/.361/.473. That was welcome and unexpected, but it was still just 148 at-bats. After the season, though, the Royals locked him up. They locked him up for five years and $7 million, with three team options that add up to $14.75 million. That's eight years of Perez for the price of a year of Joe Mauer. And that rookie line for Perez? He's improved upon it, even as the batting average regressed as expected. More importantly, he's still just 22 -- an age when a lot of draftees are playing their first full season in A-ball.
And, perhaps, most importantly, the offensive showing is just gravy. This is the real reason the Royals were confident in locking him up:
It's not just his arm that makes Perez a fantastic defensive catcher, but that's a good place to start. He's already tied a Royals record for pickoffs. Like, for his career.
His overall defense is similar to his offense so far: raw, impressive, and dripping with potential. Add it all up, and you have a catcher who has as much potential as anyone in the league. The Royals bought out his arbitration years, and they have the option of buying out two of his free-agent years.
The Rays gave Longoria a guaranteed contract at solid-regular rates, and his team options were at low-level-star rates. It was team-friendly enough to futz up teams who might have wanted to sign their top prospects to a similar deal, especially after Longoria established himself as a star.
The Royals gave Perez a guaranteed contract at roster-filler rates, and his team options were at solid-regular rates. It would have been team friendly if Perez played like Kurt Suzuki. Instead, he could become a star, too.
The Longoria contract has been held up as model of how small-market franchises needed to do business -- a how-did-they-do-that? deal that was the envy of the league just a couple months after it was signed. There's a chance -- a small, but very real, chance -- the Perez contract will look even better. And it could mess with teams just as much as the Longoria contract. He's becoming another cautionary tale for prospects going for the guaranteed money.
The difference between the two is a matter of scale. Evan Longoria was one of the best prospects in baseball -- a rare creature, even before his first major-league game. Salvador Perez was a lesser prospect with a chance to be a solid regular -- one of scores, if not hundreds. Good luck trying to lock up those types for five years at just over three times the league-minimum salary now. What if I'm the next Salvador Perez?, they'll wonder, possibly while daydreaming and leading off first, about to get picked off by Perez.
The Royals might have found a new way to lock up their young talent. They also might have broken that new way before they had a chance to use it a few more times. If Perez is really this good, though, it would have been worth it.