“No Club shall act in concert with any other Club with respect to Free Agents.” – MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement regarding Collusion, 1985
This year’s hot stove has been neither of those things. It has been cool, cold and frigid at times, seeming less like a stove and more like an oven you wanted to put your head in. There has been such little movement on any major free agent this offseason.
The biggest signings have been Lorenzo Cain and Shohei Otani, the first big signing and the last big signing. Woof.
With Pitchers and Catcher reporting for Spring Training in less than two weeks, things should start moving, albeit very quickly, but was there any foul play? Was there a collusive effort from the MLB Owners and GMs to sit on their hands and wallets this offseason?
No. Absolutely not. However, certain players are starting to get worried, and they rightfully should be. This isn’t your normal offseason, but it’s not something that’s going away.
The game of baseball hasn’t changed much in the last 45 years, but the way it’s played off the field has. However, before we go any further, let’s talk about collusion.
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What is Collusion?
Collusion is “the secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy, especially in order to cheat or deceive others.” The last instance of collusion in baseball was during the 1985-87 and possibly 1988 seasons when all 26 managers and their staff colluded to keep players with their respective teams. In the end, MLB and the owners were fined $280 million dollars in lost wages to the players affected.
Or let’s put it like this…
Imagine if Mike Trout became a Free Agent this year and no one offered him a contract. No one offers Mike Trout a contract, except for the team he played for, at either the same pay or less. THAT’S WHAT WAS HAPPENING. In order to assuage players from moving around from team to team in free agency, the owners took it upon themselves to not offer any player a contract unless their old team gave the go ahead. This continued for multiple years until the Player’s Union settled with the Owners to the tune of $280 Million dollars.
Former Commissioner Fay Vincent had this to say on Collusion:
“The Union basically doesn’t trust the Ownership because collusion was a $280 million theft by Selig and Reinsdorf [Chicago White Sox owner] of that money from the players. I mean, they rigged the signing of free agents. They got caught. They paid $280 million to the players. And I think that’s polluted labor relations in baseball ever since it happened. I think it’s the reason Fehr [MLB Players Association Executive Director] has no trust in Selig.”
Marvin Miller, the first President of the MLB Player Association (MLBPA):
“Most people have not fully understood what that collusive effort meant. That it was an agreement to not improve your team. It was an agreement that no matter how important these free agents are, superstars available to improve your team, to fill in holes on a team that could otherwise be a pennant contender. It was an agreement, ‘we will not, under any circumstances, make an offer to a free agent no matter how good he is.’ And that is a really a conspiracy to fix the pennant race. I think in terms of scandalous proportions, that collusive conspiracy was far worse than what is generally conceded to be the worst scandal, the Black Sox scandal, involving eight players. This involved all 26 owners and their officials and not for one series, but for three consecutive, maybe four World Series.”
Collusion looks like this.
This is a reason to strike.
Something like this is abhorrent and sets the game back years, maybe even decades.
Are we at this level of conspiracy?
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So where are we? What’s happening? Why is no one signing with anyone? Why are there so many great free agents available this close to Spring Training?
Easy. The way we value talent has shifted.
Albatross contracts like Albert Pujols, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Kemp, etc. are a problem for the league and for ownership, but there’s no way to solve it. Besides letting the contracts happen, or buying players out… there’s no solution. The money will not be well spent and it impedes the growth of a team. With young talent making a difference on a daily basis the emphasis has shifted from star power to growth potential. That’s where this stalemate began.
Let’s look at a few examples.
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Ellsbury signed a mammoth deal with the Yankees in 2013 after the Red Sox won their third World Series in 10 years. The $153 million dollar deal stretched over 7 years seemed like a good deal to anyone outside of New England, but the Red Sox never wanted to sign the Center fielder. Why? They had Jackie Bradley, Jr. waiting in the wings. The younger player was given the chance to shine.
Jackie Bradley, in his time with the Red Sox, has compiled a career WAR of 10.8, and has been paid less than $6 million dollars. Jacoby Ellsbury has amassed a 9.1 WAR, collecting $84.5 million dollars from the Yankees. The Red Sox went with the younger talent and it paid off, and will for the next 3 years while JBJ is under arbitration and team control. Jacoby Ellsbury will rot on the Yankees bench until they decide to eat his contract and send him to Oakland.
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The Orioles have an issue at first base and it’s going to keep them from maintaining their shortstop. Chris Davis signed a 7-year, $161 million dollar deal before the 2016 season. The contract seemed to have been earned considering he led the league in home runs and knocked in 100+ RBIs in two of the prior three seasons. After the ink on his massive deal had dried, that Chris Davis never showed up. Instead, they got a shell of the former player. In 2017, Chris Davis hit .216 with 26 home runs, a far cry from his 2015 numbers of 47 and .262. Davis was kept for his offensive prowess, but now he struggles to keep his OPS above league average.
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Choo and the Rangers signed a 7-year, $130 million deal, after a solid 2014 with the Cincinnati Reds, that found him 12th in MVP voting. Choo had speed and was consistently stealing 20+ bases a season. With that and his high average, Choo was a great outfielder to build around as the main staple of your lineup.
Choo has yet to steal 20+ bases, let alone 5+ bases, in Arlington and has never reached his season averages while playing in Texas. With 3 more years on his contract, and a crop of solid outfield talent coming up through the system, as well as on the team (Mazara, DeShields), Choo’s contract is only going to get in the way. Classic Albatross.
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During the 2015 season, Zimmermann, Strasburg, and eventually Scherzer were the solid starters for the Washington Nationals. Before that time, Zimmermann was the rock that held the Nationals staff together, placing in the top 10 Cy Young vote two years in a row (2013-2014), and hurled the first no-hitter in Nationals history in 2014.
It was no surprise that the Nationals were going to let him walk after signing Scherzer, but his deal with the Detroit Tigers should have raised eyebrows. Zimmermann had been overworked in Washington, finishing in the top rankings for innings pitched in his time as a National. So it always was no surprise when Zimmermann showed up to Detroit he pitched like damaged goods. The guy was never going to be the starter they wanted him to be after David Price left town. He’s was always going to be the other guy in the rotation.
Zimmermann is going to make $74 million in the next three years. It’s unclear if he’ll ever return to his old form.
I would go into more of these, but Bobby Underwood has already talked about this at length, both with huge contracts and Albert Pujols specifically. The evidence is clear, huge contracts for older players are a thing of the past, and the MLB and the MLBPA are having a hard time adapting.
Because they can’t.
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The Big Problem for the MLBPA
If the MLBPA is all about their player’s interests they might be about to cut off their nose to spite their face. Forcing owners to sign players this offseason is going to absolutely butcher the chances for next years crop of guys, ultimately ruining Free Agency for everyone. They’re in a tough spot, but they can’t call collusion, not when the facts are so very, very clear. If the MLBPA has a problem with the way the owners are playing the game, they should have been more worried about how the game was being played in the past.
Let’s take the Washington Nationals, for example. I’ve written about this in the past, but last year they legitimately sold the farm to bring in Adam Eaton, who had 5 years of arbitration left on his deal with the White Sox. Why? They needed a solid centerfield option and there was n way they’d be able to afford to keep Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez in the future due to their awful finances and lack of funding moving forward.
Arbitration is an interesting thing. Each party submits their offers for the upcoming year if they see eye to eye they move on. If the team and player cannot agree, they move to an arbitrator who will rule on the matter. Most players manage to avoid arbitration, but sometimes they don’t and it’s a bit of a roll of the dice. This happens to play into the Owner’s hand. It’s all numbers and not speculation. The Free Agent market values speculation and future stats, while arbitration looks at a player’s value based on fact.
How could the owners not win?
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When Tim Lincecum won the 2008 Cy Young Award he was making $405K, just $15K above the league minimum. In 2009, he made $650K. Who wins in that scenario? The Giants Front Office. It’s obvious.
In the last 3 years, players under 30 had a 70% share of the Top 10 WAR spots. Almost all of those players were under team control or arbitrated salaries. So instead of the convincing me to pay $200 million over 6 years for Jake Arrieta, maybe you should sell me on Arrieta for 6 years over the future of a younger player.
Seriously, let’s take a look at that exact scenario. Let’s say that Arrieta’s top option is the Philadelphia Phillies. It could easily be somewhere else, but let’s say Philly. $200 million over 7-8 years, which has been Boras reported asking price, has an average yearly price tag of $25-$28.5 million. This would make him the highest paid player in the game. If Arrieta had a 2017 like his 2015 great season I’m all in on that assumption, but here, I’m not. Because his numbers took a serious turn the following two years.
What Scott Boras is asking the owners to do is take a very large gamble on Jake Arrieta’s decline being relatively slow, as well as the fact that once their pitching prospects are good to go, his contract will be off the books and worth it. The Phillies happen to have 4 Starting Pitchers in their top 10 prospects, all of whom have MLB ETAs in the next two years. Signing Arrieta is the opening and closing of that window all at once. With his hefty contract on the books, there’s no room for younger guys to stay, they’ll get shipped out to play for it. Arrieta is a pair of golden handcuffs, it’s a very nice thing, but it’s still keeping your hands tied.
The game of free agency is no longer tipping in favor of the players. The MLB owners learned how to play the game and how the game can be won. That’s going to be a problem for the MLB and MLBPA, but most importantly, for the fans.
The Clock Is Ticking…
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The word “strike” is not one that’s taken lightly in the game of baseball. The scars of the 1994 Strike are still being felt today. So when players begin talking strike because of a lack of multi-million dollar deals, the only people you’re going to hurt are the fans. Teams looking to win rings are already being hurt by huge deals, so complaining that you’re not getting yours adds insult to injury.
And that sucks, but that’s the case here. In 1994 a big publicized issue was salary caps, and the public saw that as the players wanting to be paid more and more and didn’t want a ceiling. The optics were bad, but this years problem of “no one wants my deal” while turning away offers is also unsavory.
I’m not saying they’re wrong. I mean, in my industry it’s all about knowing your worth. Hell, that’s every business. But know your market and know how it’s shifting. Seriously. Scott Boras has Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Hosmer, Carlos Gonzalez and Carlos Gomez as clients, just to name a few. The first three guys have had offers in the range of their asking prices that have remained untouched for weeks and months. Why haven’t they taken them if they are desperate? What are they waiting for?
There are a lot of nuances to this whole process, but to paint them all with a broad brush and call this offseason collusion is just untrue. What’s happening is a negotiation for space in the market, and the players will soon realize that they don’t nearly occupy as much as they did.
And that’s going to be an issue moving forward.