The collusion solution
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:
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.
Officials of other clubs have been chuckling all week over the George Steinbrenner-Pedro Martinez You-Use-Me, I'll-Use-You Show in Tampa.
Since just about every member of the Yankees' baseball operation has told someone in the sport they have no interest in Pedro, "I just look at this as pure entertainment," said one AL executive.
The wires were able to milk Joe Torre's I'd-love-to-manage-Pedro remarks into another Pedro To The Bronx headline this week. But as an official of one club laughed: "Joe's giving a speech in Dallas and he's asked about Pedro. What's he supposed to say -- 'The guy's a bum?' "
According to a baseball man who has spoken with participants at the meeting, it was Martinez who "gave a sales pitch," while Steinbrenner mostly "just listened."
Now that that show is over, it's still tough to locate any team willing to match the Red Sox offer (two years, $22.5 million, plus an option). So eventually, people in Boston expect Martinez to take it.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Too much invested in him, in more way than one," said one NL front-office man, of Patterson.
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."
"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."
"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.
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."
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.
"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."
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.
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:
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.
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