Over the previous two offseasons the teams in Major League Baseball and the free agents in Major League Baseball have been having a bit of an issue coming to a common ground. While you’ve seen superstars get paid, pretty much anyone below the $150M contract threshold has watched teams essentially say “pass” and wait it out and hope to sign them for 50% of what they would have gotten just 3-4-5 years ago in free agency. A guy like Dallas Kuechel had to wait until June to sign a 3-month contract despite being a proven, reliable, above-average starting pitcher.

Many in the media, and even some players have talked about how it certainly feels like the teams are colluding to bring salaries down. Multiple players complained and or noted how “weird” it was when on the same day, after not getting any offers all offseason, they got multiple offers that were nearly identical. This was reported by The Athletic’s Rob Biertempfel and The Athletic’s Jayson Stark for different players. Jordan Bastian of MLB.com also relayed a similar story of this happening to Brad Brach last year.

Before the World Series was even over this year there were multiple teams already talking about needing to cut payroll. Teams like the Boston Red Sox, who can literally print money, are trying to cut significant amounts of payroll. The St. Louis Cardinals have said they too are not going to be adding anything to their payroll. Why? Because the Cardinals are in the real estate business, too, and they have money tied up in buildings that have nothing at all to do with baseball. They aren’t the only ones, but you can see where I’m going with this. With ever growing revenues in the sport, teams are trying to spend less money on the product on the field.

The players union isn’t happy. Nor should they be. There’s certainly something to be said about their part in this. They fought for the dumbest stuff in the last collective bargaining agreement instead of fighting for things that mattered. They didn’t foresee that teams were going to stop paying veteran non-stars, and did nothing to improve the pay for pre-free agency players to counter act that. The union certainly messed up. But there also feels like there’s a lot of bad faith going on from the owners when it comes to sharing the revenue growth with the players, too.

And over the weekend one General Manager made a statement that caught the eye of the MLBPA, as well as some journalists. On a conference call with the local media, Atlanta Braves General Manager said this:

Every day you get more information. And we’ve had time to connect with 27 of the clubs – obviously the Astros and (Nationals) being in the World Series, they were tied up – but we had a chance to get a sense of what the other clubs are going to look to do in free agency, who might be available in trades.

There are a lot of ways that you can take that statement. But before diving any further into it, we need to be sure to understand the rules set forth in the collective bargaining agreement about teams discussing free agency. You can read the entire CBA here if you want to waste a whole lot of time, but here’s the part to focus on with regards to this situation:

Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.

Teams are explicitly not allowed to discuss free agent plans with other teams. The reason is easy to figure out: They can collude by doing this to keep prices down. And it’s not as if they haven’t done this before. They were busted for it in the 80’s and had to pay the players association hundreds of millions of dollars for doing it.

What was said by Alex Anthopoulos isn’t proof that teams are doing this. But it’s certainly another brick in the evidence wall. This is a little bit different than what happens at the yearly GM meetings where each team will tell the other teams what they could be looking to add via trade in the offseason. Discussing trades is allowed. Discussing plans for free agency isn’t.

Do I believe that Anthopoulos was actually calling other teams and asking specifically about their free agency plans in regards to players? No, I don’t. But I also don’t think that they should be given the benefit of the doubt with how things have been going lately, either. The MLBPA should investigate the situation. That’s a part of their job.

Late last night the Braves and Anthopoulos released a statement:

In advance of the General Managers meetings, I called around to Clubs to explore the possibility of potential off-season trades. At no time during any of these calls was there discussion of individual free agents or the Braves’ intentions with respect to the free agent market. To the extent I indicated otherwise during my media availability on Monday, I misspke and apologize for any confusion.

This is one of those apologies where if true, of course this is what you put out. But it’s also one of those apologies where if not true, of course this is what you put out. Unless there’s a recording of the conversations had (spoiler alert: there isn’t), and unless another team is willing to say that you and they in fact did have those conversations (spoiler alert: they won’t), then it’s almost impossible to prove otherwise.

So what does this all mean? Well, if nothing else, it gives us a better idea that the teams and the players are absolutely nowhere near thrilled with each other. The players union doesn’t trust the owners as far as they can throw them, and things are going to be contentious. The players feel they aren’t getting their fair share, and that they are being actively worked against. When the collective bargaining agreement expires following the 2021 season, unless there’s an enormous shift in how things are right now, some of us baseball writers may have to find some part time work with no baseball to cover.

23 Responses

  1. Bob Purkey

    I find it interesting that the agents all speak with one another. The players all speak with each other and recruit. . . Just look at the CC Sabathia quotes about how long he has been talking to G Cole about coming to New York, but when a front office speaks to other teams about what they are looking for, the Players Union screams “COLLUSION!” I don’t begrudge any player anything that an owner/GM is willing to give him, but I find the constant collusion rant down right silly!

    I thought that the idea of a front office was to discuss your team’s and other teams’ needs to see if you might have a fit in some way.

    Reply
    • Colorado Red

      These guys you mentioned do not control the money.
      On Dallas he just wanted may too much.

      Reply
    • Satchmo

      Ditto.

      When a bunch of workers/players get together to form a collective effort to raise salaries it’s called “organized labor”, and we celebrate it. When the folks that own the company/team get together to form a collective effort to suppress salaries it’s called “collusion” and we brand it as heresy.

      The fact is that the owners are making millions of dollars, which is fairly normal for folks that run cooperations worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Players are making millions of dollars playing a game, which is decidedly abnormal (and a sign of a decadent American culture with it’s values way out of whack). Perhaps, then, the decline in player salaries isn’t the collusion boogeyman but simply the market making a correction toward something the general public have always known: it is obscene for a grown man to make millions of dollars playing a game.

      Reply
  2. AirborneJayJay

    No. Tony Clarke is grasping at straws here trying to leverage this nothing burger. Tony Clarke is trying to recover his credibility with the players after signing off on a CBA they immediately started to complain about.
    Just posturing from the imbecile Tony Clarke.
    My heart just breaks for the players. They have to play for $8MM in peanuts instead of the $12MM deal they thought they deserved because some dork player made that much way back in 2015.
    The players and their agents have used the sabermetrics to their advantage in contract talks and arbitration hearings for years to over inflate their salaries. Now that the teams are using the same statistics to counter their demands in arbitration and contract talks, the players and their union leaders are all up in arms.
    I never liked the arbitration process anyway, but thems the rules. Live by them like you agreed to Tony Clarke. Quit crying.
    Will we ever hear what the outcome of Tony Clarke’s investigation will be? A lot of crying coming from the MLBPA? It must be feeding time for all those millionaire babies represented by the MLBPA.

    Reply
    • Bob Purkey

      Agree completely on arbitration. Just because Boston, LA or NYY pays a bunch of money to a back-up middle IF, means that some arbiter says that I have to pay my back up the same amount. Ridiculous.

      It is kind of like these salary increases these guys get after a horrible year, just because. . . Why would anybody get a raise after hitting .225 or show an ERA of 4.50+.

      Always reminds me of the Ralph Kiner story when he led the league in HR’s for Pittsburgh and had the AUDACITY to ask the Pirates for a raise the next season. The Pirates offered a REDUCTION by saying “Ralph, we finished last with you, we can finish last without you!”

      Reply
      • Stock

        Agreed. I was under the impression that the intention of arbitration was that a player receive 80% of his market value in the last year 60% in the next year and 40% his first year. Kevin Gausman is a great example. Arbitration he should get 10 million. He is not worth 5 million.

  3. BK

    MLBPA and Tony Clarke specifically have every motivation to reach for headlines like this. They do it to keep support of the dues-paying players and to attempt to gain leverage in future negotiations. They also know they can count on sports writers, many of which share open disdain for wealthy owners, to help spread their message.

    In a totally free market, shouldn’t cases like Keuchel occur where a player over estimates his value and ends up not signing a contract until midseason? Frankly, it’s surprising that there aren’t more guys like Keuchel or Kimbrel out there. In a balanced real estate market, a lot of homes go unsold because they are over priced. Moreover, in real estate, most home offers are pretty similar as valuing a home is a fairly simple task. With all of the advanced analytical data, no one should be surprised that players receive similar offers during free agency. It certainly doesn’t point to collusion.

    Reply
  4. stock

    When you sign is no indication of collusion. To say Keuchel signing in June even though he is not a bad pitcher is not right. He would still be a FA if his asking price was 100 million a year. He would have been signed right away if he asked for a 1 year $10 million contract. Fact of the matter is his asking price prior to May 1 was greater than teams were willing to pay.

    Reply
  5. Stock

    As said above the constraint has more to do with the collective bargaining agreement than it has to do with collusion. Exceeding the salary cap is very expensive. The Yankees and Dodgers have decided too expensive and they cut payroll to get under the cap. Baltimore, the White Sox, Tigers and Royals are in tear down and rebuild mode. This is new to baseball but does have an impact on salaries.

    Salaries in baseball are up 6% the last three years. get rid of the teams mentioned above and salaries are up 20% over the last three years. Sounds to me like 24 of the MLB teams did not get the collusion email. Maybe they should check their spam.

    Reply
  6. Stock

    Maybe teams are finding out that signing teams to huge contracts or acquiring huge contracts are not good business.

    How did it work out for the Reds? The Homer Bailey extension was a disaster. The Joey Votto extension is looking pretty bad the next 4 years.

    How did it work out when the Yankees took on Stanton’s contract?

    What about the Giants acquiring Cueto and Samardzija in the same year in free agency?

    What about the Padres acquiring Machado and Hosmer?

    I am sure the Cub fans are elated about the money spent on Darvish, Chatwood and Heyward.

    I am sure the Brewers are looking forward to the next three years of Cain after his 1.5 war from last year

    In Colorado the Wade Davis, Ian Desmond and Dan Murphy signings were flops.

    The list goes on and on. Assuming no injury the stars are stars. Gerritt Cole will earn his money if he stays healthy. However, more often than not the $60 – $150 million contracts come back to bite their teams in the back end.

    Call it collusion if you like. I just think teams are finally waking up and the players pay the price because they play for the cheap when they have value.

    Reply
    • Datdudejs

      This^^^^ Teams are just being smart with their money, and realizing that spending a ton of money on free agents is too risky and really hurts teams that don’t have a ton of money

      Reply
    • Scott

      I agree with your assessment. With the analytics available today, teams are realizing that veteran with a 1.5 WAR is not a good value, when someone cheaper can get similar production.

      Reply
  7. joshtrum

    I think the real issue is teams manipulating a system to pay players the minimum as long as possible, once players can actually earn money (which they deserve from not being properly compensated before) the players are not because teams are reducing payroll, there is a middle ground in which MLB players can get fairly compensated, and owners aren’t sinking as much money into players who can become sunk costs. However, no one likes compromise. Also, everyone who reads this likes a raise, and while yes, baseball players do get paid a whack and a half of money which makes this social worker die inside, if there’s pie on the table to be had, we all want our fair piece and the compensation we deserve based on the market value, and money available.

    Reply
    • jim walker

      Well said. I would also note that players are forcibly bound to teams in professional baseball much longer than in other major sports in the USA.

      Forget the potential 6 years required to become a minor league free agent. From the time a player goes onto the 40 man roster, a team can control him for 9 more seasons. Only in the last 3 would the player have any salary leverage via arbitration.

      Compare than for instance to hockey in North America where virtually every player is eligible for unrestricted free agency by age 27, most much sooner unless years are bought out with competitively negotiated contracts. And if they are drafted but go on to college or out of North America to play for several years, their draft rights expire and they become a free agent at age 20 or so.

      So, I don’t feel at all sorry for the owners.

      Reply
      • Sliotar

        To take Jim’s point further….

        IMO, the small-market owners are absolutely the worst of the worst in the whole deal.

        They take revenue sharing, and in turn, in many cases, accept second-tier status within MLB…losing players to bigger markets, smaller contention windows, etc.

        Then, many of these same handout-getters complain about the “broken system” (Lead owners in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Tampa Bay all have been quoted publicly in the last year or so, off the top of my head)

        All it would take is for CIN/PIT/CLE/TB/KC/MIN/AZ (Phoenix is a big market, but owner is a cheapskate) to go to the Winter Meetings and tell the other owners “Enough with the unequal playing field. We need a NFL or NHL set-up.”

        But…they won’t and the players’ union is so inept, the owners will control the narrative during the next CBA negotiations.

      • BK

        Jim, there are at least a couple of really big differences between MLB and the other big pro sports leagues in the USA:

        – MLB has the longest flash-to-bang between signing/drafting a player until they produce on the big stage. As a result franchises have to pay to develop talent. Top talent bypasses this phase in the other leagues.
        – Nearly all MLB contracts are fully guaranteed. This contrast sharply with at least the NFL.
        – And as someone else pointed out, there is an uneven playing field in baseball. Other leagues don’t have that. The lack of a ceiling and a floor contributes to the consternation of both sides. It’s perplexing that neither MLBPA of the smaller market franchise owners have demanded change.

        You really shouldn’t feel sorry for either the owners or the players. They have a CBA that they negotiated together. The players have elected to go with a compensation system that heavily favors top talent over the vast majority of players. Top MLB contracts are the richest of all sports–they’ve achieved their objective. I’m willing to bet if you sat down with the owners they would tell you they want to keep payroll roughly in the same range year-to-year. Predictability (controlling risk) is really the cornerstone of building a strategic plan.

  8. Sliotar

    MLB – Eugenio Suarez – 6 years, $66 million, $2 million as a signing bonus
    Under contract through age 33 season. Signed for under prime FA rate…this is his “big deal.”

    NHL – Mitch Marner, Maple Leafs – 6 years, $65 million…
    $61 million up front as a signing bonus. At age 22.

    Will be unrestricted free agency at age 28… could easily sign another 7 or 8 year deal at that point.

    The NHL has nowhere near the economic clout of MLB.

    It is criminal how badly the MLB and more so, minor-league players, are misrepresented.

    Reply
    • jim walker

      @BK above> NHL contracts are guaranteed. They can however be bought out for $0.67 on the dollar. Also some of the salary is at times held in escrow to the end of the season for adjustments against the salary cap which is a very hard cap (the players get a fixed portion of league revenues; no more, no less). The escrow system is actually going to be probably THE major point of contention in their next CBA negotiations. BTW, the NHLPA head is now Don Fehr. Yes, that same Don Fehr who used to run the MLBPA. Should be interesting.

      I don’t agree on the need for the extended development time in professional baseball. In particular, I’ll bet if Latin America was financially able to support leagues similar to the European hockey leagues or even Canadian Jr Leagues, we’d see guys staying at home versus coming to the US to play in the low minors. And then we would see more nearly finished players coming to the US either directly onto MLB teams or at the AA or AAA levels at younger ages.

      Reply
      • BK

        Jim, thanks for your insight into the NHL. Admittedly, I have never followed the NHL.

        While it’s feasible that MLB could one day develop players more akin to the NHL, that is simply not reality today. The fact is teams make multiyear investments to prepare players to ultimately reach an MLB roster. Accordingly, the want a return on that substantial investment–just like any business would.

        It’s quite a stretch to say that players are bound to a team by force. In actuality they are bound by a contract that they voluntarily entered that is governed by collective bargaining.

        The fact is, there are significant structural differences between MLB and the other major sports in America.

  9. Hotto4Votto

    Are owners colluding to keep salaries down? Possibly. Could it also be a shift in how they value players as they progress on the aging curve? Those hitting FA in their prime are still scoring big, lengthy contracts. Those on the wrong side of thirty are the ones more often waiting, and those with QO offers attached.
    Nothing AA said makes me think it’s collusion. Of course you’re going to get a feel for other team’s plans in FA by deduction. If teams have obvious openings, and they’re not exploring those openings through trades, it’s logical to conclude that they will look to the FA market. None of this even considers most teams plans are largely public knowledge. This thing called the internet will allow you to read up on other GM comments, plans, and beat writers speculation.

    Reply
  10. Steve Schoenbaechler

    I will state it this way.

    First, if clubs are doing similar things, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are colluding. For instance, myself, back in the days of Homer, when we were trying to unload him to the Yankees, I couldn’t help thinking, “If I was the Yankees man, I would simply wait till the end of the season, sign Homer as a FA if I still want him then. So, I would still get Homer as well as I get to keep my prospects.” If I can think of that, I would think a lot of good baseball people would be considering a similar thing.

    Now, as far as offering similar contracts, there are a lot of similar contracts out there for a lot of players. But, when we are talking about one individual player, the question would be just how similar are the contracts. For example, are they all 3 years $50 million? Then, sure, there is probably colllusion. But, from how I understand contracts get offered, some may be 2 years, some 3, or even 4 years. To me, that’s not necessarily collusion. Teams are simply looking to set their team up like that. Similar with the financials.

    So, if players are going to try to prove collusion simply because they are getting offered “similar contracts”, they are going to have to prove that teams are, in fact, getting together and talking about what to offer specific players. If the players are getting offered “the same contracts” from teams, then the players probably wouldn’t have to prove teams actually meeting.

    Reply
  11. Eugene Reds

    This comment thread is like an all you can lick boot buffet.

    Reply
  12. Bob Purkey

    Am I correct in saying that professional sports “unions” are the only unions that can negotiate collectively AND individually? I am not sure, but if so they don’t sound like the true union model to me.

    Reply

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