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On the possibility of collusion in Major League Baseball

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Is it real? Is it possible? Are the Brewers participating?

Peter Ueberroth
Peter Ueberroth and the Good Old Days
Photo by Steve Green/Getty Images

The slowness of free agent movement in Major League Baseball this offseason has led some of us old timers down the road of fond memories of the 1980s and baseball’s admitted collusion against the players.

SB Nation’s “Royals Review” had a fine article by Hokius on December 26th, 2017, that studied the effect of possible current collusion on the Royals, and his conclusion was that in this instance it was perhaps beneficial to the Royals. To understand why that might be, we probably should understand what collusion was back in the eighties.

Hokius’ article encapsulates the history of collusion very well, and how and why it happened. To summarize Hokius’ points: the collective bargaining agreement that addressed collusion had it’s origins in player collusion, actually - the combined hold-out of Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax in 1966. Both sides have agreed to not collude in every collective bargaining contract since.

However, in the mid-eighties, Major League Baseball clubs agreed to not bargain faithfully with the free agent players. They did this with the agreement and support of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth (who, it must be remembered, was an employee of the owners). Basically, the clubs agreed to only pursue free agents that were not being considered for a new contract by their original teams. If the players refused to sign with those teams, they didn’t play. Just the happenstance of the results would probably have been enough to convince a judge and or jury that collusion was occurring (four free agent signings outside of their original teams for each season in that period), but the owners had the hubris of leaving a paper trail of their intentions and their actions.

Legal decisions in the players’ favor led to MLB paying out $280 million to be divided among those players affected by the actions of baseball. There have been other charges of collusion by the players’ association since, but no court decisions. However, baseball has made further payouts to the MLBPA as a direct result of those charges.

This is a thumbnail sketch of the history. I encourage you to check out Hokius’ article, which will give you a much deeper understanding of the history of collusion in baseball. Of course, the original collusion (the reserve clause) was the most harmful to players’ earning abilities until Curt Flood sued Major League Baseball to end that practice (which tied players to their original teams unless they were traded or released by said teams). Flood’s case went to the Supreme Court, and he actually lost it, but the final result was the death of the Reserve Clause.

Baseball has spent less than half the money on free agents through Christmas of 2017 than it did in any of the previous four seasons, per Shaun Newkirk. That is a precipitous drop, but doesn’t prove collusion. Are players holding out longer this season in hopes of bigger deals? One would think not, as it has been shown that contracts generally get smaller, not larger, as players wait longer. Is this just baseball teams individually realizing that the longer they all wait, the less they’ll spend, and that large free agent deals aren’t necessarily good for their futures? Are teams merely being frugal and saving up their money for the huge crop of stars available after the 2018 season? Or have baseball teams actually discussed these ideas (without writing anything down), and will we see more action in the courts after this season?

We can’t know. Not yet, anyways. But the fact remains that we are a week into January and most of the action so far has involved bullpen arms. Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, Greg Holland, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain all remain unsigned. Wade Davis signed with the Rockies, and Carlos Santana with the Phillies. While the Cubs were reportedly interested in re-signing Davis, it is entirely possible that none of the players signed so far were wanted back by their original teams (the Cubs, for example, might be saving their money for Arrieta), and were therefore “fair game” for other organizations. That would include Jhoulys Chacin, Yovani Gallardo, and Boone Logan - three pitchers signed by the Brewers.

Hokius points out that collusion at this point could benefit the Royals - they will be able to bring back Moustakas, Hosmer, and Cain (if they so desire) and keep their team competitive without having to go through a rebuild. It would make their decision to hold on to each of those three players at the deadline last season more understandable. And the situation could be fluid - a signing of one or more of the Royals’ free agents might make the other one or two no longer desirable, and lead to their availability on the open market.

But what would collusion mean for Milwaukee?

It would most likely mean that the Brewers will not be making any major signings. That, of course, is possible whether there is collusion happening or not. The cost of a Darvish or Arrieta could be out of the realm of Brewer GM David Stearns’ (and owner Mark Attanasio’s) comfort zones. But what of, say, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb? If the Cards and Rays don’t want them, wouldn’t that make signing them a possibility?

Probably not. If Darvish and Arrieta are truly not available (don’t tell the Twins about Darvish, although if they are colluding one would think they’d know), the big market clubs will out-bid the Brewers for the services of the next group. The pitchers on the Brewers’ roster would be what you see right now, with perhaps a few more lottery tickets to compete.

This discussion of possible collusion would include the assumption that the Brewers are willing participants in the process. I find that the most disturbing aspect of the whole thing - that this year’s free agency has caused me to perhaps doubt the veracity of Mark Attanacio and David Stearns in the hows and whys of running the Brewers.

Conspiracy theories can be fun! They can also be educational; whether collusion among owners and teams in MLB in the 2017-18 offseason is real or not will most likely become evident as we see further signings. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not too worried about the welfare of the top free agents this year. But this is one “trickle down” situation that is actually real. The less the stars make, the smaller the contracts for mid-level free agents. And the further we get from competitive balance among the small and large market teams in baseball.