Collusion by Any Other Name Would Smell as Foul

It’s January 8th, and hardly any free agents have inked contracts with teams, new or old. It’s January 8th, and the Cubs have a Jake Arrieta-sized hole in their rotation. It’s January 8th, and all of the biggest names on the market have been left in the cold by a slow-developing offseason.

Really, the offseason hasn’t “developed” at all. The two perceived roadblocks that took the form of Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton have been cleared for a month now; the Winter Meetings have come and gone; and the biggest signings so far have all been for relief pitchers. There is little on the rumor front to report, little evidence from which to draw any conclusions about the eventual destinations of Arrieta and Yu Darvish, of Alex Cobb or J.D. Martinez, of Eric Hosmer or Lorenzo Cain. The best free agents are still available for any team willing to make a move toward improving their squad for 2018 and beyond.

And yet, no teams are making those moves. Especially in the National League, few teams have attempted to shore up weaknesses, some very serious, by inking free agents or even making trades. The Rockies has been the most active, bringing in a cadre of relievers headed by Wade Davis, the only top-ten free agent to sign so far. The Phillies brought on Carlos Santana, a smooth move for a team on the cusp, but hardly a watershed. The Dodgers, Nationals, Diamondbacks, and Cubs—the league’s four playoff representatives in 2017—have done little to nothing to bolster their teams. The Cubs’ biggest deal so far is with starter Tyler Chatwood, who garnered $38 million over three years to nail down the fifth start spot, and BP Wrigleyville’s own Mike Banghart wrote at Cubs Den about why settling for only Chatwood and Brandon Morrow would be seriously disappointing. Even with the moral quagmire that was the Marlins fire sale, the offers for Stanton, Dee Gordon, and Marcell Ozuna were paltry. It’s not like these free agents are appreciably better or worse than in previous years, or that teams are valuing their skills in different ways. Rather, these free agents are fairly emblematic of the kind of player who is reaching free agency these days: the late blooming, the oft-injured, the somewhat enigmatic.

All of this inactivity, despite clubs being awash in money. In addition to the normal piles of cash that baseball owners sit upon, MLB handed $50 million to each club for the sale of MLBAM to Disney. The blockage in the free agent market is caused solely by owner intransigence, as they have decided collectively to wait out free agents’ demands and attempt to snare them in January, February, maybe even March. They have money to spend and are choosing to pocket it rather than improve their teams. The question on many people’s minds, then, is whether or not this is collusion.

The evidence for collusion is mounting, and ample. The biggest market teams have sat out free agency mostly or completely, deciding instead to bring in relievers at higher than average contracts to sop up the extra money in their coffers. The Dodgers and Yankees are both dangerously close to the luxury tax threshold, a mark they desperately want to slip under. Relievers like Davis, Morrow, Jake McGee, and others have received fairly lucrative deals, and for two or three years. It’s a curious strategy for teams like the Cubs who have large holes elsewhere (the starting rotation, in the Cubs’ case) and little competition on the market. And for the Cubs, this has pushed the team closer to the luxury tax threshold, while leaving the best free agents out in the cold.

In fact, the CBA established in winter 2016 further codified and incentivized such practices by implementing much harsher penalties for organizations who exceed that threshold. To summarize: a team paying the tax for the first time following a year of not paying the tax (this applies, too, to teams like the Cubs who previously paid the tax but have since squeaked in below the threshold) owes 20 percent of the total by which they have exceeded the limit. The second year garners a 30 percent tax, and the third year a 50 percent tax. There are also some draft pick penalties for these teams. The owners negotiated specifically for this tax, angling for the harsher penalties simply because they want an excuse to save money. So, it’s difficult to believe that this offseason’s tactics are not a concerted effort to suppress salaries. That is, after all, owners’ modus operandi, and they have been clawing, legally and illegally, at the gains won by the MLBPA for the last four decades.

There are those who would excuse this behavior as the natural end result of front offices’ dramatic philosophical shift over the past decade or two toward “better” allocation of resources, toward a skepticism of the value of free agents, toward “smart” team building. Those trends are certainly ongoing, and they are producing the current state of affairs in MLB with two camps of “playoff” teams and “tanking” (i.e. rebuilding) teams. The dichotomy feels especially stark as teams like the Phillies, who stubbornly refused to rebuild for several years, hop aboard the tanking train and accumulate good, young players for cheap. Those trends have also produced an even more exclusionary process of management and front office hiring, which has been well documented in the pages of Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere, and the further exploitation of amateur players, as evidenced most recently and obviously with the ban of John Coppolella for violating international signing rules. The adverse effects of this ideological lever have already been felt by those most vulnerable.

BP’s Ben Diamond tactfully assessed the slow offseason and its possible causes last week in a must-read piece. Marc Normandin did the same at SB Nation. I have little interest in being so tactful. These labor practices that are becoming the norm in organized baseball are aggressively exploitative, and management’s unwillingness to sign free agents, waiting for their prices to drop late in the offseason so they can snatch up good players for a fraction of the deals they would have received in previous years, is evidence enough to conclude that the owners are colluding. But those who excuse the owners’ stinginess as prudent business practice in this age of free agency are tying themselves into cognitive knots: free agency is the most important mechanism by which players can actually earn what they are due—after years of minor league, pre-arbitration, and arbitration salary suppression—and to argue for its obsolescence is to argue against the rights of labor in general.

What’s important to note is that collusion in MLB in 2018 does look, and necessarily will look, different than it did in 1987. In the late-’80s, when owners colluded to dramatically suppress player salaries, owners were forced to pay out almost $300 million to players, with evidence of collusion resting mostly on the plights of Tim Raines and Andre Dawson. It was a fairly obvious case, and Commissioner Peter Ueberroth resigned his position in 1989 as a result of the cases. The next two people to hold that office, Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent, expressed surprising sympathy for the players, but only because of the owners’ brazenness.

The gains of the players were to be short-lived: Bud Selig took over the reigns as commissioner in 1992, meaning that an owner who had participated in collusion was now the head of the league. The MLBPA entered a period of declining power, even as player salaries skyrocketed, producing the current status quo, where the owners have definite designs going into CBA negotiations, and the MLBPA merely desires labor-management peace. The well-worn point that player salaries have decreased as a portion of revenue is germane here. That percentage, which peaked around 56 percent in 2002, is now down to under 40 percent—or, a decrease by about 33%. Because of this new environment, and with the succession of Bud Selig by protege Rob Manfred, “collusion” will not look as it did three decades ago. Antagonistic labor practices have been institutionalized further, resembling more closely the pre-MLBPA era than the Marvin Miller- and Donald Fehr-led years of true labor gains.

So, when we see explicit reports by establishment voices like Ken Rosenthal assert that “teams are using a new playbook” when it comes to free agency, we should not be shy to critique such a system and those who perpetuate it. The evidence of collusion, or something functionally the same, is there. It’s just more artfully obfuscated than it used to be.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports

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34 comments on “Collusion by Any Other Name Would Smell as Foul”

Payne Hertz

Collusion? How about common sense for a change? Clubs have decided not to spend tons of money on declining or bad players. Now you’re complaining about teams being smart. It’s tough when there’s nothing to write about, huh?

Zack Moser

Why is this teams being smart? Why are you quick to jump to the owner’s defense, instead of advocating for your favorite team to sign good players? Time to apply some self-criticism and either change the way you think about baseball or accept that you’re advocating for billionaires saving money and making your favorite team worse in the process.

Hollywood Mark

Brilliant piece. I was screaming at the TV yesterday morning as Rosenthal on Hot Stove literally laid out the legal defense of the owners under the “getting smart” manifesto. I will never take Rosenthal straight up again. MLB TV claiming and blaming everyone from Boras to the weather while avoiding Collusion 4 – the obvious hokem pokem’s razor reason. Thanks for the great piece.

Mike Juntunen

Zack, its completely possible for what teams are doing to both be in their rational best interest and indicative that the status quo cannot continue.

I’m Dodger fan. As an educated consumer of baseball I have no problems with their offseason conduct – they picked up a quality, needed lefthanded reliever for cheap, took a flyer on a failed starter (similar to the NRI that produced Brandon Morrow just last season), and the reality is that the players on the market are a pretty poor fit for them (they’ll get 2-2.5 wins out of Pederson, Hernandez etc in LF, the weakest point on the roster .. they could pay $15m to forcibly upgrade that position by maybe a win by signing Lorenzo Cain, and that’s probably the best fit FA on the market for them). A Darvish resigning would be nice but not really worth the money – their rotation is fine and incredibly deep, with prospects (Walker Buehler, for example) on the way.

However, if teams are smart, the system will break down because MLBPA has foolishly put all their eggs in the free agency basket. If teams will not engage in Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera contracts, the system stops working. Right now, players provide surplus value at a young age, letting a small market team rebuild and accumulate talent and enter a phase of being competitive (see royals, or pirates) before those players depart and the cycle continues. That system works if those players then get paid too much at the end of their careers when their value is declining.

Free agency’s entire history has more or less worked this way. Players have sold out the pre-arb and arb players for the potential of the big FA signing for their longterm members for decades, and it worked because players all dream about being a star who signs that kind of deal.

If those deals stop occuring for anyone but the transcendent talents (the Bryants, Trouts, Kershaw, Seager, Harper, etc), that system will break.

But it’s also the case that I almost certainly believe my team is objectively stronger in the long run if they don’t sign one of this year’s poorly fit, marginal-upgrade free agents so they can both resign Kershaw for a stupid amount of money and then make a run at Harper or Machado next season (to say nothing of having the cash to eventually extend Boras-Repped Corey Seager).

Its possible to critique the way the system’s breaking down without simultaneously arguing that the motivations of front offices are malign, and in fact there’s a pretty good chance that’s exactly what’s happening.

I pointed out at some length in the comment section of the Ben Diamond article you linked that BP itself has actively advocated for most of the things that are happening for a long time. When one or two teams is finding better value by being ‘smart’, it was good for those teams, but when every team is doing it, it is actively bad for the players because the teams have recognized they have more leverage.

Actual collusion involves an agrement and communication. There’s a near 0% chance of finding that among sooo many executives, many of whom these days in player development and scouting are former players or former baseball writers of left-leaning bent.

But teams are recognizing their power over free agents is much stronger than they thought, and the consistency in evaluation, the removal of many teams from the FA market in any year due to rebuilding, and the way only a few teams are good fits for each premier FA have created a situation where there’s basically no bidding to be had.

How many teams really want JD Martinez? Can you list a serious suitor besides the Red Sox? So why should the Sox be aggressive? In the end they will get what they want because their negotiating position is stronger. JD only has a stronger position of multiple teams are interested in his talents, and his horrific glovework has muted the value of his upgrade to the other (very small) list of contenders that could upgrade at a corner outfield position.

The same is true of Hosmer (what contender needs a questionably reliable, slightly better than average first baseman? Teams have Rizzo and Bellinger, and, for that matter, Yuli Gurriel who are superior or equal players). The Astros and Dodgers have more starting pitching than they have rotation spots for; the list of suitors for Darvish is in practice the Cubs and Twins.

This CBA’s structure makes it punitive to exceed certain thresholds and, more importantly, ahs made those thresholds ramp up very slowly. the average team payroll is increasing much faster than the tax line, and more importantly, than the critical Second Surtax line that costs teams as much as 93% of the overage (if they are in the 50% multiple-offender tier) and degrades their first round draft choice. That line is going to be an effective salary cap for everyone but a team in absolute win-now mode.

Alleging that the owners’ behavior is rooted in only profit motive weakens your argument. It is sufficient to argue that this change to the status quo is going to fuck the players in a very bad way and will need to be changed without ascribing rationale. Many clubs have shown that profit is far from their single motivator (look at the payrolls the Dodgers and Yankees have run before), and those teams don’t see the need to spend right now, because the thing that pressures them to spend (competition) isn’t pushing. The Dodgers are 10 games better than the next best team in their division. If they want to upgrade to get an edge on the Cubs in the next NLCS, they’ll do it at the trade deadline when they have a better idea of their needs and know who has been injured or declined in the course of the season.

Christopher Hunt

You should have written the article. Your reasoning is solid.



Even granting that a legal finding of collusion must entail an explicit agreement and explicit communication attended thereto, to Zack’s point (as I interpret it), isn’t it possible that the way in which the owners set up the 2016 CBA—i.e., with the escalation of luxury tax, related forfeitures of draft picks, etc.—might constitute a sort of collusion aforethought in strategy, without the need for subsequent agreement and communication in tactics?

IOW, is it possible the ownership cabal set up the CBA in such a way that they could not be faulted for acting in their own individual best interests, ostensibly independent of one another, while still enjoying the collusive benefits of such an agreement? And if so, wouldn’t it be the responsibility of the MLBPA for not recognizing that as the likely outcome?


He addressed your points in the article! If it was just that owners were reallocating the money that they used to spend on free agents into spending in other areas, Zack probably would not call it collusion. But in almost every area, it seems like owners are finding ways to hold down spending (minor league players and pre-arb players) or cut spending (international signees and free agents), despite increased revenues. And the data he gave on player’s salaries as a percentage of revenue are pretty damning.

He also addressed the issue of teams being smart. Are the Cubs smart for signing Tyler Chatwood? He does not address what was considered the Cubs biggest need heading into the offseason. He may also just be bad for the Cubs (as opposed to big free agent signings who may finish their contract bad, but are typically very good for parts of the contract).

Hollywood Mark

Naysayers will change their tune when two competing spring training camps open – one with all the “aging” stars = 136 declining players and the other with no name rooks. Games will be played on the field as the 136 break down into All-Star teams of free agents. The media (sans (MLBTV) will salivate to cover these games and alternate all-star spring training beginning February 8th. Should be fun!!


The unfortunate players with millions upon millions guaranteed. The mean owners squeezing dollars from every source. The victims are actually the fans who make all this money possible. Costs to fans are past ridiculous. Corporations have the best seats at most venues due to season ticket costs. Games to take your family to are occasional at best due to the cost. Even though I subscribe to MLB to watch the Cubs, I can’t watch over 40 games live per year due to the “territories” of teams. Atlanta, Cincinnati, and St Louis have the “rights” to broadcast where I live. So, unless a local channel broadcasts, I can’t watch the game live when the Cubs play those teams. If you want to talk about who is being shortchanged, then be truthful. It is the fan.

Zack Moser

The greatest trick the owners ever pulled was convincing fans that ticket prices are related to player salaries. They are completely extricable from each other. Player salaries make up about 40 percent of league revenue—owners have raised ticket and concession prices, and shut out working class folks from the game, because they *can*, and because they would rather court corporate bigwigs than serve the people who like their team.


The Rickets family pumped over $500 million into Wrigley Field. That is significant overhead. Ticket prices went up. Players personal overhead is negligible. I don’t care for the prices the owners charge and part of that is players salaries. Owners have risk involved but players don’t when a contract is guaranteed. I think owners should reduce their overhead to help fans pocketbooks. The largest part of that overhead is salaries of players. I would love for them to stop blacking out games due to territories, lower concession costs, etc. as well. If MLBPA cared about how much minor leaguers make they would funnel some of their billions in that direction. You seem to have a strong bias against owners specifically. I am for the fan and that is your audience.


Do you seriously, honestly believe that if player salaries drop, ticket prices will dip to one cent below whatever levels will result in max revenue?

Either the money goes to the players or it goes to the owners. I’d far prefer it go to just about anyone than the Ricketts’


I can’t believe someone actually wrote this article. Will be waiting for the article on player agent collusion that happens EVERY trading season.


OR most of the major free agents are clients of Scott Boras, who is notorious for waiting out teams. I haven’t heard anything from Boras regarding collusion. He has a vested interest in his players receiving large contracts, so don’t you think he’d call out teams if he believed that collusion was occurring? Also, perhaps teams don’t want to over-pay and give out 5-6 year extensions to players like Arrieta because they don’t believe they’re worth it? I, for one, would be disappointed if Theo gives out a David Price-esque contract to Arrieta/Darvish, as there is a strong likelihood that contract would become dead money by year 4. Will you be signing the same tune next year when Bryce Harper, Machado, and co sign huge deals? No, because they’re worth the money. Plain and simple. Your leaps in logic here are pretty disingenuous.

Zack Moser

Front offices save tens of millions of dollars by suppressing salaries for players’ first six years, and then a small portion of players reach free agency and garner big contracts. It doesn’t even out in the end, despite the five- and six-year deals that Darvish or Arrieta will get, because that’s how the system is designed to work. Take a step back and actually analyze the minor league, pre-arb, arbitration, and free agency system, and it’s clear that the owners save money every step of the way and only pay out big free agent contracts because it’s the easiest way to pull the wool over your eyes.

Robert Nerenberg

…….player agent collusion doesn’t lead to a single job

Horace Fury

Boras has five of the biggest FA names, on whose behalf he’s driven this market into a ditch as much as anyone. Should the pure of heart cough up $210MM for 7 years for JDM or Hosmer to show that they are not colluding with anyone? That’s an obscene overpay, and everyone knows it.

Zack Moser

An obscene overpay for whom? A billionaire owner? As long as players only reach free agency after six years of service time, these are going to be the ways that money is spent. The owners like this system because they can say that paying older players isn’t worth it, while people like you take their words at face value without thinking critically about why this is the way things are.

No Disrespect but you Thesis is severely flawed. The entire game from top to bottom has shifted from a subjective analytic approach to a statistical analytic one. Basically the facts show that signing 7-10 yr deals for players in their early 30’s rarely ends well. while i agree MiLB players salaries are suppressed artificially the MLBA are just as culpable as the owners in putting that knife in their backs. Have current practices suppressed player salaries over that last 10 yrs , certainly, but that has also led to the most competitive balance we have seen in yrs. Unrestrained salaries put teams like Pit, AZ, KC etc. at a severe disadvantage. While many of your points are valid they are also fairly one sided. Maybe Try to give a fairer analysis taking in the positives and negatives from both sides. IMHO The baseball fan has been the beneficiary of the more competitive balance and in the end Baseball is an entertainment industry no different than the movie theater or broadway play.


I disagree, but at least Jonathan is making a contribution to the discussion rather than calling people names.

Opposing collusion to suppress wages doesn’t make one a communist; its just being damn sensible.Whether collusion is in fact occurring is the more relevant–and controversial–concern.

Mike Juntunen

Zack, it isn’t the owners who have argued that those players are overpaid. 20 years ago Owners were happily overplaying 35 year old guys based on reputation and wondering why their teams didn’t get better.

It was this community, and this website, that argued that those players weren’t worth the money and continually criticized them. Go read some BP transaction analysis from 15 years ago. There’s not very many charitable comments. We consistently called them idiots and told them that 35 year old, 10 time allstars probably weren’t worth the money because they were washed up and done by that point – and eventually, they hired the very people who ran this website to help run their teams.

And what do you know, now teams are doing that.

This argument didn’t originate with teams or ownership, and to act like it does is to be willfully ignorant of the publishing history of the brand for which you’re currently writing.

Zack Moser

First, you don’t need to condescend to me. I know the history of the publication for which I write, and the long arc of baseball analytics writing and its influence. Those folks were right about a lot of things, wrong about many others, and they often didn’t foresee the consequences their work would have on how major-league teams functioned (until some of them started implementing those ideas themselves as they were hired away).

And owners have literally always looked for ways not to pay players. Salary suppression and the strangling of players’ rights are baked right into the roots of organized baseball, and this is just the latest iteration. Owners have never “happily” paid anyone.


Why do you keep deleting comments that are skeptical of this article?

Zack Moser

Because not a single comment has engaged with my actual thesis, or attempted to understand why the framework of “smart” team building, “bad contracts,” and general anti-labor language is not only wrong, but actively harmful. I’ve restored them for your viewing pleasure.


We all get your thesis. You are all about unions. As a teacher, I imagine you are in a union. You sure act like it.

Zack Moser

unions are extremely good


Yep. Union man all the way. Anti-capitalism seems to be your mantra. As I said earlier I am for the fan. Owners and union take advantage of the fan who pays the bills. It seems the fan is of little concern to you.

Zack Moser

anticapitalism is extremely good


I’m just happy to see dialogue on this site. Too good of writing, as a whole, to not discuss.

Capatilism > Utopian Nonsense

Zack is proof that there is nothing worse than an intellectual who lacks intellect.


Does “Capatilism > Utopian Nonsense” have anything substantive to add or critique? So far, all I’ve seen from this character is evidence of a limp and lazy brain.

Scott J Marcus

I think it is disingenuous to call it collusion. Collusion was illegal, and teams were rightly punished. Now, rather, it seems like teams are following the rules in the current CBA, and acting intelligently. Exploiting the legal rules to your advantage is NOT the same as illegally colluding with all the other teams to suppress salaries. The MLBPA agreed to these rules. If they didn’t foresee all the ramifications, that is on them. The MLBPA should figure out a way to get more money into the hands of the most productive — that is younger — players. You can’t force front offices to give out stupid contracts.

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