Going into what will be his age 27 season, Evan Longoria has been one of, if not the very best third baseman in baseball since he burst on to the scene in 2008.
Yes, even considering the fact that Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera now also plays third base.
Defense matters, after all, and Longoria is one of the slickest at the hot corner with the glove, and with a .877 OPS over his career, even the most anti-Tampa Bay Rays baseball fan would have a difficult time saying he’s not a game-changer with the bat as well – one only needs to go back to the final regular-season games in each of the Rays’ last two seasons for a reminder of what he can do.
That said, a disturbing trend is starting to emerge in the gifted third-baseman’s career, and it’s one that the Rays will have to put to rest in 2013 if they have any hope of contending for the top spot in the AL East.
As good as he is, Longoria simply hasn’t stayed on the field consistently enough over the last couple of seasons.
The Rays third baseman has been unable to avoid the DL in each of the last two seasons, as a costly oblique injury led Longoria to miss the first month of 2011, and an even more devastating hamstring strain took out almost half of his 2012.
The impact of his presence could not be any more over-stated. The Rays missed the playoffs for the first time in three years, and as close as they were with a 90-win season, the simple fact is that it wouldn’t have happened if Longoria had not missed those four crucial months.
That the team was still a very good team speaks volumes about how well it’s built, and the Rays will again be one of the favorites for a playoff spot going into the coming season.
Even without Big Game James Shields, Tampa Bay has one of the best rotations in the league, and their bullpen is still a formidable bunch, especially if Jake McGee continues his rapid ascent to the closer’s chair.
They’ve added enough secondary depth, as well. Yunel Escobar could have a bounce-back season, and the team picked up way more than enough depth to fill second base, which will allow super-utility man Ben Zobrist to be the primary right fielder. Whether it’s potential redemption-ready players like Luke Scott, or young stars getting ready to take the next step like Desmond Jennings, this team is constructed to compete with the very best in baseball.
But, none of it will matter without Longoria. He’s the team’s leader on the field, the central piece of their offense, and without him, the Rays are a well-constructed machine without an engine to push them forward.
Before 2012, Longoria had been a 6+ fWAR season in each of his past three, years. Last year, he was only on the field enough to earn a 2.4 fWAR for the Rays. Those are not replaceable numbers, not when the replacements were Sean Rodriguez and Jeff Keppinger, who were worth a combined 3.1 fWAR in almost three times the number of games played.
Those 3+ wins would have put the Rays in the playoffs last season, and while the team will certainly want to avoid missing the playoffs for the second year in a row in 2013, only Longoria’s health can make that happen.