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Did the owners collude against free agents this past winter?

Apr 7, 2010, 2:23 PM EDT

As has been widely reported in the past 24 hours, the player’s union is mulling a collusion grievance.  In the stories that have circulated since yesterday, the primary allegation cited has been that agents have claimed that they
received multiple similar offers for free-agent clients last winter, thereby driving salaries down.

My first thought upon reading that stuff is that there has to be more to it for Weiner and the union to rattle their sabers like they are, because (a) similar offers can be explained by increasingly refined and accurate analytical approaches; and (b) Weiner is no bomb thrower. While it may have been Don Fehr’s m.o. to excoriate the league at the drop of a hat and see collusion around every corner (based on a lot of experience, mind you), the new MLBPA seems to tread more carefully on this ground. I’ve seen multiple blog posts today evincing skepticism about the significance of similar free agent offers. And when it comes to charges as serious as collusion, I think such skepticism is in order.

An industry source familiar with the collusion allegations tells me, however, that that this is not a case of teams merely using similar analytical approaches to reach similar valuations for free agents. Rather, the similar offers in question were frequently made to free agents by multiple teams virtually simultaneously, undercutting the notion that they were arrived at independently. More significantly, while the Commissioner’s Office has long — and legally — provided
advice to individual clubs about how to value given players on the
market
, my source says that the recommendations have become more
insistent in recent years and clubs are now sharing and discussing this
information among themselves.

I’m with Tom Tango and David Pinto in believing that it’s possible to explain even near-simultaneously similar contract offers without resorting to collusion (i.e. teams may and probably should have their stats department work up a spreadsheet on every potential guy on the market so they can move quickly once someone becomes available), but if what my source tells me is true and teams are comparing notes and aligning their valuations, such a thing would cross the line
between non-binding advice and illegal collusion.

The union has not yet decided if it will actually file collusion charges against the league — they’re still in “investigation mode” they say — but this go-around seems to be a bit different than the collusion allegations tossed out in recent years. Unlike before, I think there’s a decent chance that the union may take the next step and file something.

  1. Largebill - Apr 7, 2010 at 2:41 PM

    Standard union garbage. If the owners don’t behave incredibly stupidly then it must be illegal collusion. Couldn’t possibly be restraint in a recession.

  2. willmose - Apr 7, 2010 at 2:54 PM

    I’m shocked, shocked I said, to even think that the owners might collude.

  3. Michael - Apr 7, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    This points up a side-effect of the “stathead revolution” in MLB front offices: far more teams can accurately peg what a player is worth, maybe within 5% of each other.
    In essence, they ARE sharing information – that information being formulas by which they value players. WE share the same information.
    Maybe the MLBPA should sue Baseball Prospectus.

  4. Kid Charlemagne - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:21 PM

    Well, Largebill, the owners HAVE done it before, and if the owners aren’t acting stupidly, we kind of need some sort of reason to explain it; it’s not something that’s likely to just happen all on its own.

  5. james - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:27 PM

    Yaaaawwwwwnnnn. Throw ball, hit ball, catch ball.

  6. Megary - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:37 PM

    I heard GM extraordinaire Jim Bowden discussing this very issue the other day on XM. He dismisses collusion out of hand (not surprisingly). However, he believes a big part of the reason is that most offers get reported so quickly via Rosenthal, Olney, twitter et. al, that most GM’s know what the market is forthwith.

  7. YX - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:38 PM

    I’d think Collusion would be a lot harder to pull off now since evidences of current owner / GM take less stock in the “gentleman’s agreement” than before.
    captcha: “covert union”

  8. Joe L - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:41 PM

    To me, the interesting part will be whether the allegedly collusive offers were correct. In other words, if we all agree that Player X is worth $4-6M per year for 2 years, and gets four $5M for 2 years offers, that is one thing, but if he gets four $2.5M for 2 years offers, that piques my interest. Both may be collusive, but the second scenario is much more egregious, and cannot be explained away.

  9. Jonny5 - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:42 PM

    Did the owners collude against free agents this past winter?
    I’m sure they did. I mean you’re talking about men who are built of money. How did they get to where they are now? Collusion mostly. Or their Fathers Collusion. They would be idiots not to, I mean we are talking about millions of dollars aren’t we? It’s my opinion MLB players are paid too well anyway. If Boras can lie, cheat, and steal to get his client the most money why can’t the team owners flip the script?

  10. YX - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:43 PM

    Also I fail to see how similar offers simultaneously is evidence of collusion, I mean, competition is what drives the price up, right? Seems to me like GMs are just trying to muddy the water by dragging each other’s feet.
    “sulfate manner”

  11. Total - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:51 PM

    However, he believes a big part of the reason is that most offers get reported so quickly via Rosenthal, Olney, twitter et. al, that most GM’s know what the market is forthwith.
    But then it would be likely that the offers wouldn’t come (nearly) simultaneously. There’d likely be one or two offers and then a flood.
    And let’s remember that the owners have been guilty of collusion before…

  12. Big Harold - Apr 7, 2010 at 3:58 PM

    Let me see if I have this correct;
    An agent will point to a contract of player “A” and use that as a justification or benchmark for his client with similar stats and that’s OK. But. if teams use similar analytical processes to render a relative worth to them and that’s collusion? I never fails to amaze me the extent to which the players, AND owners too, will go to cash out every nickle from fans. I guess nobody that make their livelihood in baseball ever heard of the expression “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs”. Some of these clowns need to be ejected from their plush insulated cocoons into the real world and get a real job.
    Considering the millions of people that have lost their jobs, health care coverage and homes in the last couple of years I could not imagine a worse time for the players to decide to start bellyaching about how their indecently lavish already incredibly high wages are being stifled. Yet another shining example of the union not seeing the forest for the trees.

  13. Megary - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    I get your point, but I’m taking “simultaneously” in this instance not to mean within minutes but rather to mean within days. Of course, that’s open to debate.
    And the flip side of Bowden’s comment is that the owners can gage, via the media, whether or not the market for a particular player (or even position) is weak or strong simply by noting the number of offers reported. This certainly puts a lot of faith in what’s being reported and it wouldn’t be a stretch if Bowden is off his rocker here, I agree.
    However, I don’t believe this type of info was available to the owners as quickly (and reliably) as it was the last time they were found guilty of collusion.
    Not saying they aren’t colluding now, but I think it gets a lot harder to prove.

  14. artfuldodger - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:40 PM

    The owners didn’t get rich because they are stupid. It doesn’t make sense that they are comparing notes on publicly available information, (the players stats) and they need to talk to each other to decide what to offer. Maybe they did, but I’m not a lawyer and even I know that I can’t talk to my competitor and decide on a price for a product. As others in this thread have pointed out, Baseball Propectus, Fangraphs, etc. have built statistical models to value players that are available to all teams.

  15. YANKEES1996 - Apr 7, 2010 at 4:45 PM

    Did the owners collude against free agents? Oh come on, who believes that a bunch of rich, stingy, grumpy owners would collude against a bunch of over paid, over hyped, over entitled players, that are represented by greedy, over bearing, morally and ethically bankrupt agents? I have never heard anything so crazy!

  16. BCTF - Apr 7, 2010 at 5:07 PM

    I don’t see what the problem is here? GMs chose to look internally for options to fill the needs for their teams instead of over paying for free agent and thus driving down the market. What is wrong with that? Should teams be forced to over pay for mediocre veterans?

  17. Jack Meoffer - Apr 7, 2010 at 5:25 PM

    Maybe GM’s and owners got tired of getting screwed by signing broken down ex-roided out players who don’t do anything after they sign up. Notice how you don’t see any late 30’s players hitting the ball 450 feet and 45 + homers a year.

  18. ofmontreal - Apr 8, 2010 at 11:07 AM

    The real issue is that the market for veteran players has dried up. There isn’t any competition to sign Johnny Damon to a 4/60 contract anymore. There’s too many reasons why this is to list, but the fact is plain. Younger cheaper is the thought of the day. That and sign your good players early. Vets should be concentrating on fat 1 yr offers and then there wouldn’t be complaints about collusion.

  19. Yossarian - Apr 8, 2010 at 4:48 PM

    In sum, if facts, then problem. No facts, no problem. Dog bites man. Next, please.

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