Perhaps it was the death of Michael Jackson or the forthcoming G.I. Joe movie, but baseball player agents are feeling some nostalgia for the 80's at the moment. According to the Associated Press, they're pushing incoming head of the MLB Players Association Michael Weiner to file a collusion grievance against team owners.
The most famous instance of collusion was in the mid-80's when players like Andre Dawson, Jack Morris and Tim Raines failed to get offers as free agents. The union won that claim and a $280 million settlement from owners, and they won a less publicized $12 million from owners (who didn't admit to any guilt) after the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Agents are smelling something funky in the air.
"There are too many things that need to be explained," said Seth Levinson, who represented nearly a dozen free agents following the 2008 season. "In my experience, there are no coincidences in a monopoly."
Levinson's right to have concerns about the behavior of owners, both because of past behavior and their general self-interest, but is there anything to the current claims. The chief complaint has to do with the way teams approached free agents last winter, so let's take a look at what went down.
Right off the bat, you can see that the Yankees, Mets, Braves and Phillies all spent big money on free agents. That makes it hard to see a true collusion among all 30 teams, such as the one you had in the 80's, although agents are probably more concerned with the contracts that went to players like Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn and Andy Pettitte.
If you parse those deals, though, you see fairly wise baseball and economic decisions made by teams who have seen that larding the roster with veteran free agents doesn't lead to titles. Abreu and Pettitte signed deals that forced them to play well and stay healthy to earn full value, which is a sensible approach to veteran players who didn't perform to their best levels in 2008. It's also sensible to sign good young players to long-term deals early in their careers, something else that there's been a lot of in recent seasons.
Is that collusion? Only insofar as any labor decision made in a 30-team league that operates under its own specific set of rules is collusion. Following smart business models set out by successful teams isn't something that's actionable, or shouldn't be anyway, even if it isn't in the best interests of the wallets of players or their agents.
There's another interesting point in the AP article. Agents are also upset that no impending free agents have signed contract extensions thus far in 2009. The phrase eating your cake and having it too comes to mind, especially when you take into account the general feeling that agents shun any talk of extensions before free agency for the most attractive players. That's what happened with Matt Holliday, the lead position player in this year's market, while Brandon Webb, the top pitcher, has struggled with injuries that make it hard to feel good about proposing a long-term working relationship.
You can never put anything past baseball owners, but there seems to be a lot of smoke with no fire on the surface of these complaints. Baseball teams have, for the most part, gotten smarter about decision making of late, and that's bad news for agents used to profligate spending on mediocre players. It's not collusion, though, unless there's something that hasn't been revealed yet.