- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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CHICAGO -- As Major League Baseball monitors the free-agent market, the players' association is monitoring comments from team officials that it believes are meant to put a crimp in the money spent on talent this offseason.
Michael Weiner, incoming head of the players' association, told ESPN.com that the union is keeping tabs on remarks by anonymous club officials who have made dire forecasts about the state of free agency this winter.
Among other things, the union is concerned about predictions that a flood of "non-tendered" players will drive down salaries for free agents already on the market.
Although Weiner declined to use the word "collusion," his comments hint at an orchestrated effort by club officials and are the latest salvo in a tug-of-war between players and teams that was heightened during a slow-developing free-agent market last winter.
"I don't think it's an accident that in recent weeks, management officials, without attribution, have been making predictions about what's going to happen in this year's free-agent market," Weiner said. "There have been predictions about the [money] players will get, what players will be offered [salary] arbitration and what players will be non-tendered [contracts].
"If we could prove there was a plan by management to use the press to try to depress free-agent salaries, in our view that would be a violation of our contract," he said.
Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources, quickly disputed Weiner's take on events. He said comments from team officials are simply individual opinions and not an indication of a coordinated effort to influence the overall market.
"It seems to me a bit far-fetched to suggest that we are attempting to effect the free-agent market through anonymous quotes from unnamed sources," said Manfred, who is attending the general managers meetings in Chicago. "We have no control over what anonymous sources say, and the free-agent market will be what it is."
The union took note of two recent blog items by ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney, who sought input from multiple general managers before writing that "dozens" of players with three, four or five years of service time will be cut loose by teams rather than offered contracts next month.
The more non-tendered players hit the market in December, the more it could prompt clubs to wait to bid on players who file for free agency in November -- and depress the payouts for all players.
Weiner, a union lawyer since 1988, will officially assume the leadership from executive director Donald Fehr next month. His comments appear to be a preemptive strike against a repeat of last winter, when the free-agent market hit a road block in the face of a stalled economy.
The New York Yankees signed Mark Teixeira to an eight-year, $180 million contract and added CC Sabathia for seven years and $161 million, and the average Opening Day salary increased from $3.14 million to $3.26 million. But 14 of the 30 major league clubs sported lower payrolls, and the market lagged for players at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
Numerous agents complained privately about players receiving the exact same offer from several clubs, prompting the union to consider filing a collusion grievance.
In October, players and owners agreed to push back the deadline for a grievance until the end of this offseason. The "standstill agreement," as Weiner called it, allows the two sides to see how the market plays out this winter.
The union filed collusion grievances after the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons, and players received a $280 million settlement after arbitrators ruled on their behalf. Commissioner Bud Selig has consistently denied recent claims that the owners may have colluded to hold down player salaries.
Some executives in Chicago speculate that the economy will continue to have a negative impact on spending. Several clubs, such as the Detroit Tigers, took a sponsorship hit last season, and baseball's attendance declined more than 6 percent from 2008 to 2009. That number was skewed somewhat by reduced seating capacity in new stadiums in New York.
"I don't think we're out of the woods yet with sports getting slapped in the face of reality," said Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams. "It's not fun and games anymore. It's a business, and it's got to be run as a business."
Weiner didn't dispute that observation but thinks an improving economy and the desire by teams to field competitive clubs should make for an active market.
"Do smart businessmen take into account their forecasts of what they expect their revenue picture to be going forward? Sure," Weiner said. "Is that going to vary from team to team? Absolutely.
"But what's more important are the projections of where their revenues will be, and that's based on where the economy will be next spring and next summer. The economic environment is such that there should be an awful lot of teams who believe it's in their best interests to try to improve in the free-agent market," he said.
In the meantime, several arbitration-eligible players are changing teams well in advance of the Dec. 12 deadline for contract tenders. The Florida Marlins traded Jeremy Hermida to the Boston Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals sent Mark Teahen to the White Sox last week in exchange for packages of younger, more affordable players.
"Those are the best trades you're going to make, when a guy is going into that situation and the team that has him can keep him if they want," Williams said. "At the same time, if they move him somewhere else for two cheaper pieces that fit the team's future plans, it works for everyone. I think you're probably going to see a few more of those trades."
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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