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