Did the owners collude against free agents this past winter?
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.