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Evan Longoria is right about free agency

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The Giants third baseman has gotten heat for his recent remarks regarding free agency on Instagram

San Francisco Giants v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Evan Longoria makes a lot of money.

Last year, he made $13.5 million, and in 2019 he’ll earn $14.5 million. That’s a ludicrous, crazy amount of money for a regular person. The chances that I ever make as much in my entire life as he made last year are microscopic, and mostly involve either rampant inflation, phenomenal luck, or a series of elaborate heists which, combined with lethal hubris, culminate in my downfall. Financially speaking, he lives in a world that I will never understand or touch.

Longoria had a bad year last year. According to Baseball Reference, he was worth 1.9 WAR and according to Fangraphs he was worth 0.4 WAR; in either case, it was easily the worst season of his career. He made more money than ever – more money than any of us will ever see in our lives (Colin Hanks possibly excepted, assuming he’s reading this, which I always do) – to perform worse than ever. He’s playing a kid’s game and he’s making millions of dollars for it. Now he’s complaining about how much money baseball players make? How is that fair?

Let’s think about a different question. What should a baseball player be paid?

We can start by considering how much an entire baseball team should be paid. We don’t have any numbers yet on the Giants’ 2018 finances, but according to Forbes, in 2017, they had (setting aside their burgeoning real estate empire) $445 million in revenue and they spent $198 million on their payroll, which is 44.5%. Why that number? Why did the players only get 44.5% of revenue? Why not 50%? Why not 60%?

You might be tempted here to start worrying about logistical difficulties like the luxury tax, or to start saying that the payroll is determined by supply and demand, or that management is responsible for all that money flowing into the game, so they’re entitled to as much of it as they can get their hands on.

It’s all nonsense, of course. The luxury tax is an arbitrary restraint that team owners put in effect in order to stop team owners from spending more money on free agents than team owners were comfortable with. It’s nothing more than a way to not spend money, which makes sense because all team owners are absurdly rich and rich people hate spending money.

As for whether management deserves all that money for growing revenue, well, that revenue growth is coming from TV deals, and you don’t have to be a business savant to hire a negotiator to get you a good TV deal when sports are the only thing people (especially young adult men, the demographic that brings in the most money) are guaranteed to watch live on TV. They’re not that impressive.

If we’re being honest, though, none of those are the main point that has been going around. People have been saying all of those things, sure, but the one they’ve especially been saying is, “Evan Longoria wasn’t good last year.”

That’s a silly argument in a lot of ways. First off, he’s not talking about himself and his own contract. He’s talking about the free agents who he thinks should be making the money they’ve earned over their careers. Dallas Keuchel has a Cy Young and a World Series ring, but he’s never been paid like a Cy Young winner, and teams don’t look like they’re going to start now. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are both absurdly young, ridiculously talented, and valuable to any team in baseball, and yet neither has more than a couple suitors. Teams don’t want to spend money on them, and the keen eyed observer will note that not one of those players is Evan Longoria.

Second, he absolutely earned his contract. He just did it before he got it. By fWAR, Longoria’s four best seasons in the majors were his first four, and those were the four seasons where he was paid the least. The Rays signed him to an extension a week into his career, and then signed him to another one in 2012. Over the course of those contracts, even if you go by dollars per WAR, he has been so massively productive that yes, he has earned the money he’s making and much, much more. We, as Giants fans, have no attachment to his previous productive years, but they still happened, and his being compensated for them is entirely fair.

Third, none of this is Longoria’s point anyway. What he’s seeing is new innovations in analytics being used to pay players less. Don’t give this reliever a lot of money even if he’s been great forever, because we’ve studied it and he won’t keep it up. Don’t give this former Cy Young winner a lot of money, because his velocity’s declining and at some point he’ll just be another Barry Zito. Don’t give this young superstar a lot of money, because on the surface his numbers last year look good, but his defense has been sharply declining in ways that used to be unquantifiable, and he hasn’t really produced the number of wins a superstar should, other than that one year (when he had a fluky .369 BABIP).

None of that is factually wrong, but it ignores one point that has to be going through the mind of every player: When the hell does Bryce Harper get paid for having a 9-goddamn-win season? When does Dallas Keuchel see the financial reward for being the best pitcher in the AL? When does Craig Kimbrel get paid like the unstoppable relief monster that he is?

For a long time, the system in baseball was that players were underpaid through their arbitration years, and then overpaid as veterans. Then teams wised up and stopped doing the second half of that, so why should players tolerate the first half? If they’re never going to be overpaid, why should they tolerate being underpaid?

Major League Baseball made $10.3 billion last year, and that’s without even including the $2.58 billion they got from selling their streaming video platform to Disney. That’s an all-time revenue record for MLB, and yet total player salary decreased from the year before. The players’ share of revenue has been declining for years, and Evan Longoria should be silent about it because his on base percentage dropped by 30 points?

Baseball has created an entire infrastructure to avoid paying the players. The luxury tax is part of it, and so are things like service time manipulation, but so is the media’s focus on player salaries without informing fans how much teams made (much, much more!) and yes, so is an obsession with “value” that just doesn’t affect your life at all. In terms of baseball, value is a made up concept so that owners don’t have to pay players more than they want to. They have the money. We treat it as a given that they won’t spend it to improve their team, and that’s the story of the last two offseasons, and it’s not a story that Evan Longoria likes.

Longoria signed his contract a few years before this free agent freeze, so it doesn’t affect him personally, but he can see where things are going. Baseball’s economic system has spent years tilting decidedly towards owners and away from players, and fans and writers have cheered it on as a good result that comes from teams being smart. But players won’t, can’t, and shouldn’t stand for that forever. The pie is getting bigger, and somehow the players are getting less pie. They should fight that. This might be the beginning of that fight.