|The Collusion Illusion|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on February 04, 2003
The definition of collusion is to intentionally plot with others to achieve a desired result - in this case the lowering of salaries. Twice in the past the Major League Players Association has filed collusion charges against baseball and the owners and both times baseball has settled with the players for a considerable amount of money.
This track record has many people feeling that the owners are, in fact, colluding and giving the players the benefit of a doubt. However, many of us, myself included, look at this years contract as a long expected market correction.
There are two major factors which support a market correction as opposed to collusion. The first and most important is that fewer teams are hiding their plans for the upcoming season. General managers have been able to walk into meetings with players and their agents knowing just how far many of their competitors are willing to go.
Knowledge is power and its no surprise to anyone in a front office that most teams are interested in paring rather than increasing payroll. Of course there are exceptions to that - teams like the Reds, Padres and Phillies are all moving into new parks in 2003 or 2004 and making a valiant attempt to field teams which can contend or at least attain respectability.
However, even in those cases, or cases like the New York Mets where owner Fred Wilpon is attempting to re-brand the team with his own mark, budgetary constraints are still fairly obvious. This lack of secrecy in budgetary decreases and increases only allow other teams and General Managers to recognize what the competition can reasonably offer.
Only a handful of teams, mostly contenders or contender wannabes, are able to play with a completely hidden hand. Since most of these teams can afford to outspend the competition by a significant margin, smaller teams which know they can’t afford the stars are not getting involved and being used as foils to drive up the salaries.
A perfect example of this is Cincinnati, which over the offseason made a surprise announcement that they would increase payroll by roughly 33% to $60 million. That essentially gave the Reds organization $15 million more to use for free agents. This money ideally would be spent on bolstering a pitching staff that was just abysmal last season. However, the three or four big pitchers out there: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine, were still out of the realistic price range of the team - and all demanded long term contract which most teams are becoming more and more reluctant to give. These pitchers also failed to fit the profile of youth that Cincinnati has been working so hard to develop.
Beyond those pitchers (and maybe Cory Lidle, who had already signed by the time the Reds had the ok to spend money), looking for high end pitching this season was like hunting for snipe - especially if you didn’t want to blow the whole thing with a long term commitment.
Another factor often overlooked is that because of skyrocketing free agent prices more small market teams have decided to invest more of their teams budget into internal player development - and hope they can hold on to enough talented players from their system to make a run at respectability in the long term.
The second important factor arguing against collusion is that this was one of the worst free agent classes in a long time. Aside from Maddux, Glavine, Kent, Floyd, Thome and possibly Alfonzo, there were not many top tier ballplayers to choose from. Of those players all but Maddux got excellent contracts.
Lower level players for a change are being paid like lower level players. Management is sick of being taken advantage of by agents who gloss over issues like injuries, bad years, and attitude problems.
One of the major issues making teams less likely to offer big contracts is multiyear contract demands. Teams, especially small teams, feel badly burned when they give a huge long term contract to a Ken Griffey Jr. who has played about 25% of the time that they’ve paid him for. Even with their recent team salary increase he represents 20% of their total budget.
Since the contract is a guaranteed one, not based on options or performance incentives, the Griffey contract has been an albatross for the Cincinnati franchise for 2 years. No wonder they were willing to trade him straight up for Phil Nevin earlier this offseason.
Another issue is that many of the players on the market have significant injury histories or have been coming off poor years. No team wants to pay all star money for players who they have real doubts about. Hence all the options that are being given along with one and two year contracts this offseason.
Two additional factors have also become more intrinsic to the reasoning of most General Managers - age and injury factors, and the growing pool of positional prospects. Because more and more players are being scouted and discovered overseas, marginal players and players who are demanding too much money are being bypassed for unproved players who can be had for less money.
Age and injury are huge factors to any GM. Every time a GM makes a move they are putting their job on the line. If the player fails for any reason he is the person most likely to take the heat. This is even more true when the contract is a huge one encompassing many years.
When a baseball team fails the manager is usually the first person to take the heat. After watching the manager carousel the last few seasons, many GMs have reason to worry that their heads are on the block too because while the manager controls the game, the GM controls the roster, and bad roster moves last a lot longer than bad game decisions.
With all these factors is it any wonder that contract offers are smaller and more realistic? You don’t stay a GM long if you are a gambler who loses big. Its been a long time since responsibility has ruled the free agent market in baseball. The players probably should get used to the fact that unless they change the way contracts are structured, contracts like those of this season are much more likely to be a norm in the future.