As the offseason wears on and we pull to within just a couple of weeks of pitchers and catchers reporting, there are still over 130 free agents sitting out on the market. This obviously has them getting nervous and, in turn, has their agents getting nervous. Or frustrated. Or some combination of the two.
A good example of that frustration can be seen in Ken Rosenthal’s latest story in The Athletic, in which he speaks to Scott Boras about the ice cold free agent market. Boras works for five of the top free agents still out there in J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta and Greg Holland. Given that they’re still looking for work, he’s not a happy man these days and, Boras’ self-interest and his usual overstating of things notwithstanding, makes some good points about how this tough market is not good for baseball and not good for baseball fans. It’s definitely worth your time to read it, assuming you have a subscription to The Athletic, which you should, because it’s a good publication.
In the article, Rosenthal notes correctly that, unless the MLBPA and its members can prove that the clubs are colluding against free agents, theres not much the players can do about it. He also mentions that the union has not yet made any public accusations of collusion. Which is also true.
I wanted to talk about that a minute, because many people have asked me if I think there has been collusion in this market and why the players and the union haven’t squawked about it yet.
The answer to the first question is “I don’t know.” It’s possible and plausible if, for no other reason, than collusion has been committed in the past. There’s this idea that such schemes are ancient history and were committed by dumb men with their heads in a different century, but (a) there are a lot more of the people who were involved in it back in the 1980s who are still knocking around the game than people will have you believe; and (b) the league and the union, quite quietly, settled more small scale collusion cases in relatively recent history. I do not have any evidence at my disposal that it has occurred this offseason and would not accuse front offices of it without any, but it has happened before and it could certainly happen again.
The second question is more interesting to me: why haven’t the players complained about it publicly? Will they? If so, when?
To answer this we must — my above comments notwithstanding — note that today’s owners and their front offices are much smarter than their predecessors. They still have incentives to collude and could still be doing it but, if so, they’re not likely to be as dumb about it. Back in the 1980s they literally sat in a room at an Arizona resort and talked openly about colluding. It was like that scene in “The Wire” when Shamrock was taking notes at the co-op meeting (NSFW language!) except there was no one as smart as Stringer Bell around to tell them that maybe they should not have done that. If there is collusion happening today, it’s not likely to be so crass or so obvious.
Which is not to say that, if there is collusion today, it can’t be uncovered by the union.
While there are unlikely to be any smoking guns or secretly-recorded conference room meetings in which a collusion plot is uncovered, one could make a pretty compelling collusion case forensic means, as it were. Specifically, the union can look at all of the offers made to players this offseason. If, when they do, they find that Player X magically got identical offers of $Y million dollars over Z years from four clubs, it’ll stick out. If other players can tell the same story, the case is stronger.
Obviously that would not be conclusive. As we’ve all been told, over and over again, a big problem with the market right now is there is groupthink among front offices. They’re all from the same schools, they all approach the game in the same way and in a lot of cases they use the same analytics and models to assess player value, making similar offers inevitable. I think there are limits to that defense, though, as all teams have their own proprietary analysis tools and there remain, contrary to what some analysts would have you think, a lot of intangible and situational measures of player value that could lead to differing offers. In the end, it’d be a fact dispute, and it’d all be a matter of convincing an arbitrator that the similarities in offers were intentional or coincidental, depending on which side is making the argument.
Which is to say that, setting aside the strength of a potential collusion case, it’s not likely that one could be formed, let alone lodged publicly, until after all of the dust has settled this offseason. Until all or at least most the free agents have found teams and the union and agents can compare notes on the offers that were made.
As I said before: there may or may not be collusion. The slow market may be a function of weak talent, shifting valuation models on the part of front offices, unreasonable demands by players, some other factor we’re not seeing or some combination of all of those things. If there is a collusion case to be made, however, I am not surprised we’re not hearing about it now. I’d be shocked, in fact, if we heard it before this spring or summer. The evidence simply isn’t in yet.