There has been some debate about just how much one can characterize Cliff Lee’s deal with the Phillies as one in which he “left money on the table.” On the one hand, there is the potential there for him to make more money with Philly than he made in New York. On the other hand, there was more money guaranteed in New York than Philly. On the third hand — stay with me; more than one hand is OK — we’re learning now that the first year or two of Lee’s deal will be at lower dollars before it jacks up past $20 million. The upshot: there are a lot of moving parts to this deal, and while it’s clear that he took some form of a financial hit to come back to the Phillies, it wasn’t terribly large.
But the whole affair has had a lot of people wondering about what the player’s union thinks about a top free agent at least appearing to take less money than the market would bear. Jon Heyman asked union head Mike Weiner about whether the union put any pressure on Lee to take the best deal, and this is what Weiner said:
“Absolutely not. That’s just not our approach. We want players to make the best use of their right under the Basic Agreement … As long as a player makes an informed decision, we’re happy. There are non-economic considerations. The fact that Cliff took a deal that wasn’t top dollar isn’t a problem for us.”
I agree with Heyman on this: good for the union if what Weiner says is true. Which I believe it to be.
Which isn’t to say that there still isn’t some form of pressure working on free agents. I just don’t think it’s direct. It’s probably more cultural than anything. Players grok the dynamics of the free agent market pretty early in their careers. They know that what one guy makes will impact them. This is driven home to them in their arbitration years when a player’s worth is explicitly determined by direct comparisons to other players, by name. They are certainly aware once they hit free agency that, in some important ways, they’re not just setting their own salary, but helping set the salaries for others. And that’s not even taking into account the subtle pressure an agent and family members may exert.
Put differently: even if the union doesn’t send memos to players on the subject, there’s a passive pressure on guys to take the best deal.