We have been loath to throw out the c-word — collusion — when discussing the current labor strife in Major League Baseball. It is a claim that’s very hard to prove, even though there are multiple examples of teams colluding against players throughout baseball history.
However, as players have spoken up about their experiences in the free agent market, several have made observations that seem more than coincidental. Earlier this month, Cubs reliever Brad Brach said, “We talked to certain teams and they told us that, ‘We have an algorithm and here’s where you fall.’ … It’s just kind of weird that all offers are the same, they come around the same time. Everybody tells you there’s an algorithm.” Brach ultimately inked a one-year, $4.35 million contract with the Cubs which includes a 2020 club option.
Two days later, Rockies infielder Mark Reynolds said he went without a contract offer for weeks. One day, while he was out playing golf, he got a call from his agent who said he had four teams offering minor league deals on the same day. Reynolds ended up picking the Rockies.
Add Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano as a data point. Via Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic, Liriano said about his contract offers, “They all came the same week, seven on them on the same day, and they were all were minor league deals, pretty much the same money.” He settled on a deal with the Pirates, which will pay him $1.8 million if he makes the major league roster.
The MLBPA filed three grievances against the owners between 1985-87. Similar to recent years, the free agent market stagnated in that three-year window. Free agents were, by and large, unable to find contracts with new teams. The owners also had an “information bank,” sharing information about their contract offers to players with each other. An arbitrator ruled in favor of the players on all three grievances. The owners ultimately had to pay $280 million in damages to the players. Marvin Miller, who was the executive director of the MLBPA, wrote that the owners’ behavior was “tantamount to fixing, not just games, but entire pennant races, including all postseason series.”
Since then, the MLBPA has alleged collusion — both unofficially and officially — on three other occasions. In 2006, the owners agreed to pay the players $12 million from the luxury tax revenue sharing funds after being accused of colluding in 2002-03. However, ownership made no admission of guilt. In 2007, the MLBPA suggested owners colluded by sharing information about free agents and conspired in order to keep free agent Alex Rodriguez’s contract down. In 2008, the MLBPA ultimately decided against filing a grievance against the owners for working with each other in order for Barry Bonds to remain unsigned. In 2007, his final season, Bonds hit .276/.480/.565 (1.045 OPS) with 28 home runs and 66 RBI in 477 plate appearances as a 42-year-old.
That multiple players this month alone have independently said their contract offers have come in bunches and all with similar figures suggests more than a mere coincidence. There is precedent for ownership to work together. Something is fishy.