Collusion is Dead, Long Live Collusion

Matthew Gregory
7 min readMar 25, 2019

In the last week or so, about seven players have signed extensions with various teams. Shown below:

It also doesn’t include the extensions handed out to Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks more than a week ago. These agreements seem like a positive for the players, finally getting paid after watching Bryce Harper and Manny Machado trudge through free agency. Just look at what some talking heads have to say:

Is it unfair to include Dan Dakich, who is known for his inane commentary? Maybe, but Karl Ravech, who talks about baseball for ESPN, has no excuse here.

The owners and management of teams in general, won a battle in a larger war during free agency this year. While Machado and Harper eventually got their $300 million dollar contracts, there were (and still are) players who remain unsigned who otherwise deserve their payday. Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel being the obvious examples, but others like Gio Gonzalez or Carlos Gonzalez were forced to agree to minor league deals (the MLB’s version of non-guaranteed contracts).

There’s also this strange phenomena. Multiple players this year reporting that they all received multiple contract offers, usually minor league deals. All the deals would come in around the same time and usually for the same amounts from different organizations. Otherwise useful players like Francisco Liriano should not be forced to wait for minor league deals from teams who seemingly have no reason to be picky about who they bring to the majors. For every Machado or Harper, there are dozens of players who are merely good or average. Those players are useful to any team and yet they can’t get a guaranteed contract offer in the off-season. That is the most troubling development.

The Harper/Machado saga and the numerous veterans signing minor league deals are directly related to those extensions above. The players that took those extensions saw what free agency looked like and decided to take what teams were offering, even if it meant losing out on an earlier free agency date. They also see the seeds that ownership sowed and how it could (see also: will) lead to a work stoppage when the current collective bargaining agreement is up in December of 2021.

Because of that looming specter, players are going to flock to guarantees. Paul Goldschmidt, Alex Bregman, Chris Sale and (as of 20 minutes ago writing this), Justin Verlander are players that teams would salivate over in past years. The type of player that can help usher in an organizational turnaround. That’s no longer a guarantee though. Teams with copious amounts of payroll space and ambitions of competing for a world series sat out as two of the best and youngest players to ever hit the free market, sat there unsigned.

Why should they expect it to be different for them (Bregman excluded)? Goldy, Verlander and Sale are all older than 30 years old, which in baseball means you are a diminishing value. Especially with Kimbrel and Keuchel sitting on the market, teams will now point emphatically at their arbitration eligible players while saying “Do you want to be them? Why not just with us? We’ll make sure you get paid.”

Pitchers of any age would be forgiven for that offer of safety. No one can predict a pitchers shelf life, no matter how long they play the game. Sale has been one of the most valuable pitchers in the last four years, but he also had a bout of shoulder inflammation last year. The last thing he would need in a walk year is a recurrence of that shoulder issue. The nearly $150 million he will earn from 2020–2025 (barring he doesn’t opt-out after year 3), is about 50% of what FanGraphs estimates Sale has been worth in career value. If he remains healthy, then Sale would remain underpaid and potentially be leaving money on the table. The system is still rigged to protect the owners.

Bregman has a different case, having just completed a wildly successful 2018. He has accrued two service years and looks like an extremely valuable player for any team given his versatility defensively and his bat. He would have hit the open market at around age 28 or 29. But, he exchanged more money in the immediate compared to what he’d get in pre-arbitration and arbitration for the now a now delayed free agency when he’s in his thirties. This is now the game every player will play with their current team. Take the safety right now or risk it all to have your pick of what organization you want to play for.

The most egregious exploitation of these recent extensions is that of Eloy Jiménez. Collin McHugh summed it up pretty nicely:

Except, about a week later, the White Sox announced they were signing Jiménez to a six year contract worth $43 million, with two option years that I assume will be exercised given how good Jiménez could be. Jeff Passan and Ken Rosenthal chose to report the deal in a certain light for Chicago:

To quote a certain famous Twitter user, “you do not, under any circumstances, ‘gotta to hand it to them.’” That’s not the right way to look at this. The White Sox aren’t just stealing one extra year of free agency, they’re still stealing two years from Jiménez. He should have started on Opening Day and played the full season, making him a free agent after six seasons.

Rosenthal and Passan’s job is to be an insider and this is how you do it. You can be critical of teams, within reason, but otherwise to make sure you can secure those “insider sources,” you better paint teams in a positive light. I get it, but it’s insulting to our intelligence. The good news is that Jiménez will start Opening Day with the White Sox, clearly because his defense improved from March 14th to March 20th.

Then we have Mike Trout. Simply put, no contract extension offered to Trout by the Angels could be enough to compensate his true value. The $426.5 million he will earn over the next 12 seasons won’t be enough. When healthy the last five seasons, he has been worth in terms of $/WAR over $70 million per season. That’s nearly double what he will earn per season during this contract. It’s hard to see why he wouldn’t continue to put those numbers up for the next several years and possibly beyond. But, Trout would hit free agency at age 28 had he not signed the contract. Would Trout be left in free agent purgatory like Machado and Harper, the only two players around his age who come close to being considered as good as Trout? That’s what the free agency periods of the post-2017 and post-2018 seasons have scared into players.

It’s not the death knell of free agency. There will still be players who hit free agency, like every Scott Boras client. This will obviously be a topic of conversation in the next CBA negotiations, one that may prove to be a testy negotiation. I wish I could provide a solution for the service time manipulation. The simplest solution I could think of is that it shouldn’t matter when you get called up, if you spend time in the Majors, you get to count that as a year of service. The owners and league would never agree and the teams would still find a way to manipulate, probably by just holding players down for an entire year instead of two weeks. Though, if a team is in need of a prospect who can help them reach the playoffs, the negative press of holding them down almost an entire year and risk for injury might force their hand. I don’t have a background in labor law, unfortunately.

Vlad Guerrero Jr. deserves better than this. All the players deserve better than this. The better solution is this: teams could just treat players the way they should. Think of it as the newest market inefficiency, if you must. The thing about the Trout extension is that the Angels have actually done right by him for his entire career.

The Angels brought him up without purposefully manipulating his service time. Sure, he struggled, but when he bounced back they didn’t wait to call him up. They offered him a contract extension early, so he could have some short term security while still allowing him to potentially hit free agency before age 30. It’s almost like the reason Trout signed his recent extension because the Angels treated him like a human being.

Fans shouldn’t defend cheap behavior by ownership. We pay for their product and if they actively choose to put a less superior team on the field then we need to support the players. Stop commenting on deals saying that X team got a great value for signing a player or getting mad because a player got injured and thus was a money sink for the team. That money savings from a good deal will not come back to you or me. The teams got what they wanted this winter. They convinced fans that two stars weren’t worth the money, but those same players won’t forget what happened come 2021.

--

--