If Braves want to win, they must trade for Evan Longoria right now

When you Google “Evan Longoria” and “trade rumors” you get 44,700 results, which doesn’t quite match the 584,000 results you get by Googling “Evan Longoria” and “wife,” but it does suggest that the Tampa Bay Rays third baseman isn’t exactly immune to trade gossip.

During the offseason, he was linked to the Mets as a potential replacement for Yoenis Cespedes and to the Dodgers as a potential replacement for Justin Turner. Instead, both free agents returned to their respective teams, and Longoria remains with the Rays, the club that drafted him in 2006.

This spring, I heard an interview with Longoria and could feel him rolling his eyes when asked about the possibility of being traded. He said he has always admired players such as Derek Jeter and George Brett who stayed with one franchise their entire careers, and that was one reason he signed a second long-term extension with the Rays that runs through at least 2022.

He said Tampa is a fun place to play when the Rays win, and he wants to be there when they win again. Remember, this is the guy who was publicly peeved when the team traded second baseman Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers in January, saying, “I’m surprised and upset at losing a player, clubhouse presence and friend like Logan.”

So Longoria wants to remain in Tampa, and the Rays have said they want to keep Longoria. But baseball is a business, and few baseball marriages last a career. The Rays should consider trading Longoria, and the Atlanta Braves should be the team to go get him.

I wrote last week that the Braves are kind of the island of misfit toys of the 2017 season, a strange mix of past-their-prime veterans and young guys still on their way up. It makes them one of the most unpredictable teams of 2017. As the Braves move into their new ballpark, the front office seems to view the team as a contender, and that's one reason they signed Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to a rotation needing innings and stability.

Another reason for the optimism of John Schuerholz and John Coppolella is that while the Braves finished next to last in the majors in runs scored, they ranked second in runs per game in the final two months. That stretch included the acquisition of Matt Kemp, the call-up of Dansby Swanson and a huge explosion from Freddie Freeman.

But is the offense really that good? The projection systems don’t think so. FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project the Braves to have the second-lowest runs scored total in the majors, ahead of only the Padres'. Clay Davenport is a little more optimistic, ranking Atlanta’s offense ahead of five other teams.

Projection systems aren’t a guarantee of anything, of course, but they’re right more often than they’re wrong.

The projections, however, aren’t hyper-focused on how the Braves played the final two months, in which they went 31-25. Do those results down the stretch mean anything? I looked at 10 seasons from 2006 to 2015, noting all teams that played above .500 from Aug. 1 on yet finished under .500 for the season. This was a surprisingly short list. It happened only 19 times, at an average of fewer than two teams per season. Bad teams rarely get better the final two months.

I then checked to see how those teams fared the following season. Fourteen of the 19 did improve, and eight of those did so by at least 15 wins:

The average improvement was eight wins, and it’s worth noting that the 2010-2011 Cubs weren’t trying to win as Theo Epstein began his rebuilding project that year and that the 2010-2011 Astros traded their two best players (Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn) during the season, though they were already awful at the time of the moves.

Now, keep in mind that all losing teams tend to improve. All losing teams from 2011 to 2015 averaged a 5.6-win improvement. Still, the bad teams that played over .500 the final two months showed greater improvement than the other bad teams, so that is a positive indicator for the Braves.

That brings us back to Evan Longoria and the Atlanta offense. The team's weakest position is third base, currently in the hands of Adonis Garcia, who hit .273/.311/.406 last year with 14 home runs and 65 RBIs in 134 games, numbers that don’t seem terrible -- except FanGraphs projects the Braves to have the lowest WAR at third base in the majors. Teams are getting a lot of offense from third base in today’s game, and Garcia doesn’t hit enough or make up for that in the field. He’s also 31 and unlikely to improve, which makes him an obvious weak link.

Furthermore, while Keith Law ranked the Braves’ farm system No. 1 in the majors, it is top-heavy in pitching prospects, with Swanson and Ozhaino Albies the two position players ready to make an impact at the major league level the next couple of seasons. Both play shortstop. Given the ages of Kemp (32), Nick Markakis (33) and Brandon Phillips (35), the 2017 Braves’ lineup is also more of a placeholder than a long-term solution.

Longoria would provide at least a three-win upgrade over Garcia for the foreseeable future. Although he’s no longer the MVP candidate of his younger days, he still averaged 3.4 WAR per season the past three years.

It’s less obvious that the Rays should trade him. The same projection systems I just referenced view the Rays as sleeper contenders. FanGraphs projects 82-80, Baseball Prospectus 84-78 and Davenport 80-82. A reason for optimism is that the Rays went 13-27 in one-run games in 2016; in 2015, when they went 80-82, they went 2-13 in extra-inning games. That’s not all bad luck, of course, but it suggests an area in which they should do better.

Still, Longoria is coming off his best season at the plate since 2013, so the Rays would be selling high. Although he is guaranteed $99 million over the next six seasons, the contract is still team-friendly for a player of his quality, so the Rays should extract nice value in return. Did we mention the Braves have a loaded farm system? They would be wise to flip some of that unknown future for more certainty.

I’m not big on trade proposals, but you could start with Albies, considering he is blocked by Swanson at shortstop (yes, Albies also played second base last year, but without much power his bat projects better as a shortstop than second baseman). The Rays have Willy Adames as their top prospect, but many believe he’ll have to move from shortstop to third base. They acquired Matt Duffy last summer from the Giants with the idea of trying him at shortstop, but he’s battling a heel injury, and despite his surprising rookie season in 2015, his ultimate profile is likely that of backup infielder (he could play third base until Adames is ready and then slide over to second or a utility role). From there, you dig into the Braves’ deep arsenal of pitching prospects: Sean Newcomb or Ian Anderson or Mike Soroka or Patrick Weigel or Touki Toussaint.

It’s never easy to trade the face of the franchise, but this has to be the Tampa Bay way of competing in the AL East. For the Braves, they build on their strong finish in 2016 by adding an affordable contract at a position of need. That's a win-win trade.