If this is spring, it’s inevitable that allegations of collusion by MLB teams are in the air. But at this point, those claims are speculative at best and entirely baseless at worst.
Michael Weiner, the new head of the MLBPA, did little to dispel the collusion rumors when he told the AP that he had “concerns about the operation of the post-2009 free agent market. We will determine in the coming weeks what our response to the market will be, whether that response will be a legal one or whether our response will be at the bargaining table.” Although Weiner didn’t use the C-word, you can clearly read it between the lines.
The union’s concern is that the free agent market sets the tone for compensation of all players, with the exception of those who aren’t yet eligible for arbitration. If the union fails to monitor the market for collusion, the results could be a reduction in average player salary, which would lead to a loss of the union’s credibility with its membership, not to mention Weiner’s credibility with player agents.
Allegations of collusion apparently stem from claims by unnamed agents that they had received similar offers for their 2009 free-agent clients. Those agents, unhappy at receiving offers for less than they had anticipated, are pushing the union to do “something.” As Weiner suggested, that something could take the form of a grievance (legal) or become a bargaining chip with the owners.
The similarity of free agent offers can be attributed to a number of factors, in addition to the possibility of collusion. Teams have access to similar statistical information to evaluate players, which inevitably results in arriving at similar values, and hence, similar offers. If the salary demands of players and their agents are too high, teams may elect to use a rookie over a free agent. For example, look at the Braves. Is right fielder Jermaine Dye, seeking a contract worth millions per year, worth more than Jason Heyward – at the Major League minimum salary of $400,000? Is free agent pitcher Jarrod Washburn worth more to the Reds as the fifth starter than rookie Mike Leake?
The media may also play a role – albeit unwittingly - in the similarity of offers to free agents. Media outlets report offers virtually instantaneously via email, text, or Twitter. If team B knows what team A has offered a player, there may be little, if any, incentive to up that offer.
Unlike his predecessor, Don Fehr, who saw collusion behind every act and statement by the owners, and frequently used incendiary statements to bolster his accusations, Weiner is more restrained in his comments. That restraint, and a preference for resolving disputes in private rather than in public, shouldn’t be taken as a sign of weakness. Witness the recent “settlement” involving the Florida Marlins regarding their failure to use revenue sharing receipts to bolster player payroll.
Although the Marlins didn’t admit to violating the CBA, they did agree to comply with the labor agreement in the future. And in a move designed to demonstrate their commitment, they promptly handed ace pitcher Josh Johnson a 4-year, $39 million contract. There’s no way that contract happens without the persistence of the union.
It should be noted that negotiations on the Marlins issue took place entirely behind closed doors. The first indication that a discussion was taking place came when a joint statement was issued by the Marlins, MLB and the MLBPA. If that’s an indication of how Weiner intends to operate, don’t count on the union filing a grievance over the 2009 free agent market.
Based on his modus operandi to date, Weiner may have been reluctant to make a public statement regarding the possibility of collusion, but was prodded to do so by the player agents. If he wants to maintain the support of the agents, not to mention the players themselves, Weiner has to avoid the perception of weakness, at least as compared to Fehr. Unfortunately, the perception of a strongly worded public statement trumps the success of private negotiations.
At this point, it appears doubtful that collusion exists. But if the union concludes otherwise, based on Weiner’s track record, expect a resolution to come at the bargaining table, not via the legal system.
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Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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