- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Most of us wouldn't know a collusion from a contusion.
But there sure were a lot of agents who thought they knew it when they saw it over the last two winters.
So this offseason, Bud Selig and his friends at Major League Baseball have agreed to answer those collusion allegations by doing something 100 percent unprecedented:
Any time a team requests "advice" from MLB on how much to offer any free agent -- whether it's Carlos Beltran or Adam Hyzdu -- the team will no longer be allowed to receive that guidance via phone, cell phone, carrier pigeon or even masked courier.
Instead, MLB's Labor Relations Office now will have to dole out that advice in writing, via something called a "Free Agent Advice Form." And eventually, the players' union will get to inspect a copy of every one of those forms.
Here at ESPN.com Hot Stove Headquarters, we were able to obtain a copy of the new form, and it's one fascinating little document:
First, MLB provides a Joe's Auto Body-like estimate that the value of the player "would appear to be" between X and Y dollars.
Later, the team is given a list of what MLB considers to be comparable contracts already signed by other players, complete with stats to back up the comparison.
Then, there is a list of "Other Factors" that could affect the value of the player -- "including, but not limited to" his age, injury history, role and other free agents "whose signings could affect the player's value."
But in between all that is a paragraph that reminds everyone involved that MLB isn't filling out this form because of its long affection for paperwork.
No, these words provide such an eloquent endorsement of free-market economics, they could practically have been written by John Kenneth Galbraith.
"Obviously," MLB tells its teams on each one of these forms, "the value of a free agent player is ultimately determined by market forces, the most fundamental of which are the supply of such players and the demand for such players."
Then comes a second reminder -- that "the potential value of a free agent player to one club may be different from the same player's value to another club."
So what that means, MLB concludes, is that "the amount your club is willing to pay a free agent may appropriately differ" from what MLB itself has estimated, on this very form, he might be worth. What a concept.
What that really means, though, is that the union has raised enough of a stink, behind the scenes, about another humongous collusion grievance that MLB has agreed to provide an official paper-trail case for its own innocence.
"Our position," said MLB's labor-relations chief, Rob Manfred, "is that nothing untoward has gone on. The union has been concerned about this, so we were prepared to do something to address their concerns."
Baseball didn't have to do this, Manfred said. But union-management relations have, in many ways, never been more civil or cooperative than they've been over the last couple of years. So "sometimes," Manfred said, "you have to do something proactive to keep everyone happy." And this, he said, "goes farther than we're required to go."
Which is true, at least to a point. Legally, no one in America is required to prove their innocence until they're formally accused of a crime -- even in baseball.
But collusion is a baseball crime of the highest order. And it's just about impossible to envision MLB agreeing to take this step unless it had concerns of its own -- that another winter of "coincidences," and another series of identical offers to similar players, would lead the union to turn up the heat and seek massive collusion damages.
In essence, MLB took this step because "they're afraid of a disaster," said one agent who admitted to having seen the advice form after being told ESPN.com had obtained a copy.
"This is, basically, a shot over the bough," the agent said, "which clearly indicates that the Players Association is onto MLB's game."
MLB, of course, insists there is no "game," that nothing illegal has transpired and that it has nothing to hide. The advice form, Manfred said, was simply an effort "to prove things we don't think go on."
Nevertheless, MLB was concerned enough about collusion allegations that it recently circulated a three-page negotiating memorandum to all 30 teams. ESPN.com also has acquired a copy of that document, after its existence was first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jim Salisbury.
This memorandum, which was written by Manfred, informs teams of four new conditions and "prohibitions" that will apply to all free-agent negotiations this winter:
Teams will not be allowed to discuss negotiations, contract offers or even "contemplated" offers with each other.
Teams are being cautioned that using the media to circulate information about their contract offers to free agents may be considered an illegal attempt to skirt that first stipulation.
MLB agrees to provide contract "advice" only "upon a specific request from a club" and only on the advice form. Neither MLB nor the team is allowed to disclose the advice or share it with another team.
Finally, MLB reminds all teams that they are "not required to seek such advice" and aren't even bound to follow any advice they ask for.
So what will all this mean? The fact is, we don't know yet. But we have a feeling it won't mean that Carlos Beltran winds up with an A-Rod contract.
It should, however, mean that Beltran won't have to sit around comparing six practically identical five-year, $70-million offers from six teams with very different reasons for pursuing him.
And it should mean that there won't be another duplication of last winter, when four outfielders (Reggie Sanders, Jose Guillen, Rondell White and Jose Cruz Jr.) all -- by sheer coincidence -- signed contracts worth two years, $6 million.
It should mean, finally, that teams ought to decide for themselves who and what they can afford. And that's all anyone has ever asked.
In a perfect world of capitalism and democracy, no team would even bother to solicit this kind of "advice." But at least now, if they do feel a need to ask, it will result in enough paperwork to stretch from home plate to Bud Selig's office.
And if that turns down the volume on all the collusion screams this winter, at least that means we can go back to spending our offseason worrying about the things we really care about -- like who will play third base at Chavez Ravine.
The Tigers had their reasons for handing Troy Percival a two-year, $12-million contract. But after a brief survey of other clubs shopping for closers, we've had trouble finding anyone else that was ready to guarantee him two years, especially at those dollars.
An executive of one team said that after examining the medical reports on Percival's shoulder, "we were scared to death."
Two other teams said they weren't prepared to offer more than one year, with an option -- not because Percival can't still be effective, but because he has to be used so carefully.
True, Percival had a 1.67 ERA after the All-Star break, and opponents hit just .230 against him. But "he hasn't pitched more than 50 innings in two years," said one assistant GM. "He can't pitch three days in a row. And he's a good bet to go on the DL."
Beyond that, he wasn't that much better, with the game on the line, than last year's Detroit closer, Ugueth Urbina, whose ERA in his 21 saves last year was 0.89. And if the Tigers had stuck with Urbina, they would have had just a one-year commitment instead of two.
But the Tigers were looking for veteran leaders. They wanted to make a high-profile signing to let other free agents know they're now aggressively trying to win. And Percival's signing served both of those purposes.
An official of one AL team said he thinks the Tigers are "only a couple of players away" from being a legitimate contender. And with a payroll that's expected to rise from $50 million to nearly $70 million, they have the dollars to sign those players.
There may be a shortage of free-agent closers, but the Tigers could have trouble trading Urbina, even if he is able to put the kidnapping of his mother behind him and pitch again. Which, of course, is uncertain enough.
The Cubs are wary of him. The Giants may have interest, but their first choice is to re-sign Dustin Hermanson. So that leaves the Indians, who probably would want Detroit to pay some of Urbina's $4.5 million salary, and the Marlins, who haven't given up on bringing back Armando Benitez.
Finley's agent, Tommy Tanzer, confirms a report by the Sporting News' Ken Rosenthal that the Tigers have been "extremely aggressive" in their efforts to entice Finley.
What's puzzling is that the Dodgers -- who traded for Finley in July and assured him at the time they didn't view him as a "rental" -- are the team that has "been the least aggressive," Tanzer said.
"Maybe the Dodgers are waiting to see where this goes," Tanzer said. "Maybe they think we'll come back to them. But if they're waiting, I doubt Steve will be around that long."
Tanzer said five teams have been actively pursuing Finley. They're believed to be the Tigers, Giants, Phillies, Orioles and Rangers. The Diamondbacks also remain interested. But with Randy Johnson about to head back to the trading auction, it's a stretch to envision Finley returning to Arizona.
The Phillies continue to shop for center fielders. But they've actually been telling other teams that a "high-end" starting pitcher is their top priority.
That doesn't mean Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson. But the Phillies are actively chasing starters who figure to land in the $8-million-a-year (or lower) bins. Their biggest free-agent targets, from all indications: Carl Pavano, Brad Radke, Al Leiter, David Wells, Jaret Wright and Derek Lowe.
Their center-field list is believed to include Kenny Lofton as a 350-at-bat type player, ditto on Marquis Grissom if the Giants move him and Scott Podsednik if he becomes available. They no doubt would have interest in Darin Erstad if the Angels make other moves that force him onto the market. And if all else fails, the Phillies could make a run at Reds dynamo Ryan Freel.
Meanwhile, deposed center fielder Marlon Byrd was spotted this month at the Bucky Dent School, trying to reconstruct his swing.
Clubs that have inquired about minor-league home run king Ryan Howard report that the Phillies have all but decided not to trade him.
Howard has two options left -- which means the Phillies wouldn't be forced to make any kind of decision on him until 2007. So unless they're bowled over, they apparently prefer to keep Howard in Triple-A, where he can experiment in the outfield, for at least a half year. Then they'll reconsider their alternatives in July.
One baseball man who has talked with the Phillies reports that ex-Marlin Mike Redmond appears to have moved to the top of their backup-catcher shopping list.
One center fielder who won't hit the market, even if the Cubs sign Carlos Beltran, is Corey Patterson. The Cubs would only be able to sign Beltran if they move Sammy Sosa. But even if they do both, they have no plans to shop Patterson, according to teams that have asked about him.
"Too much invested in him, in more way than one," said one NL front-office man, of Patterson.
Most of the early plot lines surrounding Sosa's potential trade to the Mets have revolved around whether the Cubs would take back Cliff Floyd and whether the union would let Sosa waive his 2006 option year. But in the end, neither of those issues looms as the main obstacle.
For Sosa to end up in New York, the Mets almost certainly are going to have to replace that option year with an extension at fewer dollars per year.
Sosa isn't giving away all his leverage if he doesn't get something in return. So this could come down to whether his old friend, Omar Minaya, can convince him to accept a one-year extension.
"Omar has a way of getting close to players," said a baseball man who worked with Minaya at a former stop. "He gets to know the player's mother and father. He gets to know the whole family. And players find a comfort level with him that they don't get very often with other general managers. He can throw a lot of things out there that appeal to Sosa. So I bet he can get it done if anyone can."
Sosa has lousy numbers in Shea Stadium (.232 lifetime average, .395 slugging percentage, no homers in his last 29 AB). But he has told friends he has no fears of playing in New York, even though the citizens of Shea would harbor no warm and fuzzy feelings over what Sosa did for baseball in 1998.
"Heck," laughed one front-office man, "they don't care what you did two days ago. Never mind what you might have done in your life."
Among all current free-agent starting pitchers, only Roger Clemens has won more games the last four years (68) than Russ Ortiz (67). But despite a 15-win season, Ortiz is being viewed by most teams as a second-tier, or even third-tier, starter option.
"I have concerns about him," said one scout. "I saw him three times this year, and each time, his stuff went down for me. It was OK for him to pitch behind in the count like he does when his fastball was 90 to 93, with an occasional 94. But it's not as OK when it's 87 to 91."
Teams and agents that have talked to the Padres keep reporting that their first priority is to re-sign David Wells. But Wells' agent, Gregg Clifton, says he and San Diego GM Kevin Towers have "only spoken one time, and I wouldn't call it a negotiating session."
"David wants to come back," Clifton said. "But they'd be making a mistake if they think he won't leave."
Wells has plenty of other options (Phillies, Yankees, Dodgers, Indians), because he'll take a one-year deal. But he'll no doubt want a guarantee a lot closer to the $6 million he totaled with incentives this season than the $1.25-million base salary he signed for after back surgery.
Scott Boras is still telling teams the price tag on Carlos Beltran is 10 years, $200 million. But assuming that ever comes down, there is continuous buzz that the Astros are poised to make a serious run at keeping Beltran.
Under Drayton McLane, the Astros have never signed a big-name free agent who wasn't willing to take a discount (a la Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Jeff Kent). But McLane's friends report he was so caught up in October euphoria, he has a different outlook these days -- especially in Beltran's case.
"What I think he's realized is what it takes to win," said one baseball man who talks with McLane regularly. "When you bring in a guy like a Beltran, I think he realizes now what a guy like this means to a team's chance to win. I think you'll see him take a different tack. I don't see him slashing payroll."
One NL executive who has spoken with the Astros reports they're getting a lot of inquiries about Wade Miller. Unfortunately, not all of them go: "Is he available?"
There have been just as many that went: "Is he healthy?" And that's a question not even the Astros may be able to answer until spring training. But it isn't out of the question that Milller could get traded in the spring, depending on how the Astros' offseason shopping goes.
The Yankees have made Randy Johnson their top priority, but their only hope for assembling the prospects to trade for him would require dealing their youngest starter, Javier Vazquez. And the problem there is that several teams are wary of Vazquez after his 4-5, 6.92 second half.
"His arm slot was much lower than I remember him," said an NL scout who watched Vazquez late in the season. "In general, guys don't drop down like that unless something is going on. It's usually fatigue or injury. But without more information, it's hard to say which."
Meanwhile, the Cardinals also are gearing up for a big run at the Unit. But one baseball man who has talked to them reports that behind the scenes, "they're in on Eric Milton, hard."
The delay in MLB's vote on the Expos' move to Washington was not, as some have portrayed it, tied to the DC Council's delay in approving stadium plans. The big hangup, according to one source, is still Peter Angelos, who is driving his customary hard bargain in negotiating concessions by MLB to help the Orioles survive the competition.
Angelos wants MLB to guarantee the Orioles a larger annual revenue take than MLB has in mind. And he has shown no signs of yielding, at last check. But MLB is at the point of no return on this move, so Angelos knows he has just about all the leverage. And he's right.
In case you missed it, there's another Pete Rose in the world. Pete Rose Jr.'s wife recently gave birth to a son -- and they named him Peter Edward Rose 3rd.
Finally, it's time to announce the ...
BASEBALL PROMOTION OF THE WEEK
Just a few weeks after the Yankees' ALCS self-destruction and the Red Sox's first World Series parade in several years, the Yankees' Double-A team in Trenton has announced the scheduling of Reset the Curse Day on April 16 -- the first visit by Boston's affiliate, the Portland Sea Dogs.
Among the supernatural festivities planned by the Thunder that day:
The first 2,000 fans under 16 will receive Bambino replica jerseys, with the No. 3 on the back.
"The great Babe Ruth in person" will throw out the first pitch, according to the Trenton press release. If this is true, it would require the Babe to reverse a more powerful force than The Curse (seeing as how he's still extremely dead). But whatever.
There will be a ground-ball fielding contest at first base, in honor of Bill Buckner.
And to make sure they summon all the curse-restoration powers in the cosmos, the Thunder will hold a séance "to conjure up ghosts of Yankees past." Sorry, Aaron Boone won't be able to make it.
Mini-Useless Info Nuggets of the Week
Rather than summon up our usual supply of useless minutiae, this week we're ranking this year's free agents, in all sorts of fun categories:
INNINGS PITCHED: Pavano 222 1/3, Brad Radke 219 2/3, Martinez 217, Clemens 214 1/3, Corey Lidle 211 1/3. Ortiz 204 2/3, Morris and Estes 202.
RBI: Castilla 131, Beltre 121, Burnitz and Batista 110, Kent 107, Alou 106, Beltran 104, Delgado 99. Finley 94, Drew 93.
RUNS: Beltran 121, Drew 118, Alou 106, Beltre 104, Kent 96, Royce Clayton 95, Burnitz 94, Castilla 93, Finley 92, Womack 91.
(* - Grimsley will be out all next year following Tommy John surgery.)
Question: Wade Boggs, making his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, finished his career with a .328 lifetime batting average. Can you name the only three active players with at least 1,000 plate appearances who have a career average as high as, or higher than, that?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
A little friendly advice on how to spend your offseason cash from the office of the commissioner.