Over the previous two offseasons the teams in Major League Baseball and the free agents in Major League Baseball have been having a bit of an issue coming to a common ground. While you’ve seen superstars get paid, pretty much anyone below the $150M contract threshold has watched teams essentially say “pass” and wait it out and hope to sign them for 50% of what they would have gotten just 3-4-5 years ago in free agency. A guy like Dallas Kuechel had to wait until June to sign a 3-month contract despite being a proven, reliable, above-average starting pitcher.
Many in the media, and even some players have talked about how it certainly feels like the teams are colluding to bring salaries down. Multiple players complained and or noted how “weird” it was when on the same day, after not getting any offers all offseason, they got multiple offers that were nearly identical. This was reported by The Athletic’s Rob Biertempfel and The Athletic’s Jayson Stark for different players. Jordan Bastian of MLB.com also relayed a similar story of this happening to Brad Brach last year.
Before the World Series was even over this year there were multiple teams already talking about needing to cut payroll. Teams like the Boston Red Sox, who can literally print money, are trying to cut significant amounts of payroll. The St. Louis Cardinals have said they too are not going to be adding anything to their payroll. Why? Because the Cardinals are in the real estate business, too, and they have money tied up in buildings that have nothing at all to do with baseball. They aren’t the only ones, but you can see where I’m going with this. With ever growing revenues in the sport, teams are trying to spend less money on the product on the field.
The players union isn’t happy. Nor should they be. There’s certainly something to be said about their part in this. They fought for the dumbest stuff in the last collective bargaining agreement instead of fighting for things that mattered. They didn’t foresee that teams were going to stop paying veteran non-stars, and did nothing to improve the pay for pre-free agency players to counter act that. The union certainly messed up. But there also feels like there’s a lot of bad faith going on from the owners when it comes to sharing the revenue growth with the players, too.
And over the weekend one General Manager made a statement that caught the eye of the MLBPA, as well as some journalists. On a conference call with the local media, Atlanta Braves General Manager said this:
Every day you get more information. And we’ve had time to connect with 27 of the clubs – obviously the Astros and (Nationals) being in the World Series, they were tied up – but we had a chance to get a sense of what the other clubs are going to look to do in free agency, who might be available in trades.
There are a lot of ways that you can take that statement. But before diving any further into it, we need to be sure to understand the rules set forth in the collective bargaining agreement about teams discussing free agency. You can read the entire CBA here if you want to waste a whole lot of time, but here’s the part to focus on with regards to this situation:
Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.
Teams are explicitly not allowed to discuss free agent plans with other teams. The reason is easy to figure out: They can collude by doing this to keep prices down. And it’s not as if they haven’t done this before. They were busted for it in the 80’s and had to pay the players association hundreds of millions of dollars for doing it.
What was said by Alex Anthopoulos isn’t proof that teams are doing this. But it’s certainly another brick in the evidence wall. This is a little bit different than what happens at the yearly GM meetings where each team will tell the other teams what they could be looking to add via trade in the offseason. Discussing trades is allowed. Discussing plans for free agency isn’t.
Do I believe that Anthopoulos was actually calling other teams and asking specifically about their free agency plans in regards to players? No, I don’t. But I also don’t think that they should be given the benefit of the doubt with how things have been going lately, either. The MLBPA should investigate the situation. That’s a part of their job.
Late last night the Braves and Anthopoulos released a statement:
In advance of the General Managers meetings, I called around to Clubs to explore the possibility of potential off-season trades. At no time during any of these calls was there discussion of individual free agents or the Braves’ intentions with respect to the free agent market. To the extent I indicated otherwise during my media availability on Monday, I misspke and apologize for any confusion.
This is one of those apologies where if true, of course this is what you put out. But it’s also one of those apologies where if not true, of course this is what you put out. Unless there’s a recording of the conversations had (spoiler alert: there isn’t), and unless another team is willing to say that you and they in fact did have those conversations (spoiler alert: they won’t), then it’s almost impossible to prove otherwise.
So what does this all mean? Well, if nothing else, it gives us a better idea that the teams and the players are absolutely nowhere near thrilled with each other. The players union doesn’t trust the owners as far as they can throw them, and things are going to be contentious. The players feel they aren’t getting their fair share, and that they are being actively worked against. When the collective bargaining agreement expires following the 2021 season, unless there’s an enormous shift in how things are right now, some of us baseball writers may have to find some part time work with no baseball to cover.