Last week, San Francisco Giants third baseman Evan Longoria took pen to paper – actually, a keystroke to Twitter – to express dissatisfaction with what he considers the maddeningly slow pace of Major League Baseball free agent signings this offseason.
Longoria has a point. Less than a month before the start of spring training, more than 150 unrestricted free agents still hang off the rack, some in the front of the store – Bryce Harper and Manny Machado – others clumped in a sloppy pile in the back.
It‘s Longoria’s opinion that something is fundamentally wrong with this, that ownership has an obligation to itself and its fans to spend extravagantly in order to build an attractive, competitive team.
This is what Longoria tweeted:
“We are less than a month from the start of spring and once again some of our game’s biggest stars remain unsigned. Such a shame. It seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents. As fans, why should “value” for your team even be a consideration? It’s not your money, it’s money that players have worked their whole lives to get to that level and be deserving of. Bottom line, fans should want the best players and product on the field for their team. And as players, we need to stand strong for what we believe we are worth and continue to fight for the rights we have fought for time and time again.”
Cue the laugh track.
What Longoria and those aligned with his point of view do not understand – or won’t admit – is that the MLB is changing the way it conducts business more than 40 years after its teams first began spontaneously burning money on wasteful contracts.
After being taken advantage of for a century by penurious owners (Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags conjures the appropriate image), the pendulum had swung decidedly in the players’ favor.
Curt Flood, Marvin Miller, and Los Angeles Dodgers righthander Andy Messersmith (the first free agent to sign in 1976; three years, $1 million from the Atlanta Braves) brought the concept of global exploration into clubhouses across MLB. Suddenly, players realized they could head in any direction and make some real iron.
That was then. This is now. Last call for the high life was the 2017 offseason. Now players are actually being evaluated on what they might do in the future as opposed to what they’ve done in the past. Economists would call this the new business model.
This is not to say there haven’t been free agent signings. There have been. But they’ve been of the middling variety, like the Philadelphia Phillies giving reliever David Robertson $25 million over two years and the New York Yankees handing infielder D.J. LeMahieu $24 million over two.
What hasn’t happened yet is the major plunge: Machado and Harper, both 25 years old, considered cornerstones of the keystone, have not received the whopping 10-year, $350 million deals the Players Union and mainstream media predicted they would.
And Longoria, lounging in a champagne bath (10 years, 136.6 million) the otherwise destitute Tampa Bay Rays ran for him in 2012, believes this is unfair and smacks of collusion among the owners.
Let’s put it this way: If the owners weren’t colluding to protect their weak from binge shopping, something would be wrong with them.
There are teams in MLB that are willing to spend top dollar. The Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees are examples of this. That the Red Sox beat the Dodgers to win the 2018 World Series is not an insignificant byproduct of their generosity. Boston comes into the 2019 season with $232.3 million guaranteed to their players.
It’s just that many other teams have decided they can’t compete for the same type of player anymore, either because of real or manufactured financial constraints.
The Phillies and Chicago White Sox have stepped up in 2019, actively pursuing Machado and Harper. And within the next week, their effort may bear fruit. But most teams have decided to stay out of the fray, perhaps waiting for the season to approach and the player panic to set in. The idea is those players unsigned by March will settle for bargain basement deals.
“The good ones will get their money,” said Philadelphia GM Matt Klentak a short time ago. “They’ll sign. They’ll end up in good places.”
Here’s an example of what the market now bears: The Yankees resigned lefthander C.C. Sabathia, now 38, to a one-year, $8 million deal good for both sides. The pitcher gladly accepted a $2 million cut to stay in The Bronx for another year.
One of the reasons for the change can be explained in the way clubs now evaluate their teams, not only for the upcoming year, but for years down the road. The advent of advanced metrics has introduced a new tool to assess performance. No longer are average, wins, home runs and ERA the standard.
Noting the mistakes made by the Reds (Joey Votto), the Mariners (Robinson Cano), the Angels (Luis Pujols) and the Marlins (Giancarlo Stanton) made signing players to long-term, $250-$300 million deals, ownership is now reticent to duplicate the folly.
They would rather trade players due to become free agents – as the Diamondbacks did by moving iconic first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis this winter – than run the risk of getting nothing in return when they decide to leave.
“I think you have to understand we’re in a changing market and you’re not going to get a 10-year deal,” said agent Alan Nero. “It’s a matter of managing expectations.”
Traditionally, the largest free agent contracts given every season are signed before Christmas. Those deals are then used as baselines for the others following it. That obviously is not happening anymore.
After the 2018 season, eight of the nine top free agents waited until after New Year’s Day. The Red Sox didn’t sign star designated hitter J.D. Martinez until mid-February and he ended up leading the team to 108 wins in the regular season.
There is empirical evidence telling management that the longer a player is made to wait, the less term and money he is willing to accept. In essence, management now has leverage again.
The money to spend is there. MLB generated $10.3 billion in gross revenue in 2018 and that doesn’t include the $50 million each team made when the game sold a streaming spinoff to Walt Disney Co. Teams no longer need to sign players to attract fans to pay their bills. They are self-sufficient, some more than others, of course.
Put it all together and you’ll find an average annual salary for MLB players which dropped last year for the first time since 2004.
Evan Longoria and his pals are going to have to get used to the idea the rules of the game have changed and so should their expectations.