Owners Collusion? More Like Players Delusion

The bad news for Blue Jays fans so far this off-season is that Toronto hasn’t done a whole lot to noticeably improve upon last year’s 76-win, 4th place team. The good news is that with catchers and pitchers in Spring Training in less than a month, neither have their divisional rivals (although the Yankees adding Giancarlo Stanton isn’t nothing they did have to give up a decent everyday player in Starlin Castro and have otherwise not been too active.)

Of course, it’s been noted widely that it’s a slow off-season in general, with players beginning to utter the taboo word – “collusion” – since stars like JD Martinez and Yu Darvish are still out there without contracts.

This of course might at first glance make sense since usually by now, the primo free agents have been snapped up and are driving their shiny new fully-loaded Brinks trucks to the Grapefruit or Cactus League. However, there are many reasons to dispute the charge and think that rather, it may reflect owners starting to collectively come to their senses a little.

First off, of course, some free agents have found new landing spots while others have opted to stay put. CC Sabathia fits the latter description, apparently turning down offers from Toronto and perhaps others, to stay in pinstripes. Wade Davis is maybe the best example of the former, signing one of the most lucrative deals ever for a relief pitcher, over $50 million for 3 years, with Colorado of all teams. Plenty of other mid-range players have signed, including Curtis Granderson with Toronto. This sort of thing wouldn’t have occurred had the 30 owners , or their general managers, somehow agreed to freeze out the nearly 200 free agents.

That leaves the point that there are still some top talents out there unsigned, perhaps unusual for late-January, but all indications are this is a result of collective greed of the players and a willingness to play a sort of Career Russian Roulette. Teams are talking to the stars and even making offers, it’s the players who are dragging their feet. Doubtless they’re hoping to drive up the price but at the risk of finding a much-reduced market by springtime. Newspaper reports said at least 5 teams are negotiating with Yu Darvish; he immediately tweeted there were 6. Eric Hosmer has apparently got not one but two $140M + deals on the table, both from small market teams (San Diego and Kansas City ) to boot. But he’s still without a team. I guess he thinks a $160M deal can’t be far off if he’s patient.

To me it seems ridiculous to think there is, or could be, collusion on the owners’ part. With the amount of backstabbing that goes on between owners and accusations they throw around (“those guys steal signs”, “they probably hacked our computers” and so on) it seems dubious to think somehow all 30 could have a top secret meeting, agree to something sketchy if not downright illegal and then all honor it. How long would it take for one rebel to break the “agreement”, not afraid of being publicly called out on it (after all, how could other owners publicly berate a fellow exec for breaking an agreement that would land them in court if they admitted to its existence in the first place?) and seize the opportunity to scoop up some bargain-priced, desperate talent? For that matter, how long would it take a team to break the “agreement” once rivals began to trade up? Do you imagine the Red Sox would , in that scenario, sit back and let New York get a 50-homer outfielder and not say, “to hell with it- we need to sign Martinez to compete?”

No, the answer lies in a rare combination of factors. First, many teams are consciously downsizing and looking years down the road, not to a Championship ’18. Tampa Bay, for example, got rid of their “franchise player” , as did the Pirates who also shipped out their best, young, still under team control pitcher for good measure. What sense would it make a team like that to suddenly cough up $75, 100 , 125 mil or more to get a player who’d not make them competitive for perhaps 3 years? Add to that the many teams, Toronto being one (Baltimore being another within our own division) that seem to be fence-sitters – not ready to throw in the towel but not confident of much more than a .500 season ahead – and one can see how some of the superstars phones aren’t being rung off the hooks.

Which brings me to the point that many teams may be realizing that winning through the nine-digit superstar contract may be as obsolete as… well, phones that had hooks to hang on! The World Series champ Astros, it is worth remembering, were a mid-level team salary-wise. The projected list of the top 10 salaries in the league for 2018 was released this month and while few would dispute the worth of a Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw, it doesn’t take long to see how things can backfire on a free-spending team.

The Cubs will still be ponying up at least $22M a year to Jason Hayward through 2023 , despite the fact that he’s a run-of-the-mill outfielder on the downslope of his career already at age 29. In the 2 years since they lost all sense and gave him a $184M deal, he’s hit a combined .246 with 18 homers and 15 stolen bases. Again, that’s over two full seasons, not counting his rather lacklustre 2 for 17 , no RBI performance in last year’s playoffs. Hope every last fan going through the turnstiles at Wrigley this year feel he’s well worth the $8 he adds to their ticket price.

The Red Sox haven’t done as badly with pitcher David Price, but one might think they could have done better with a spare $217M. In his two seasons in New England, he’s 23-12, logging a little over 300 innings in total. He’s maintained his regular better than a K per inning, but his 1.2 WHIP last year was worst since his ’09 rookie year. It could be argued that he had some injury troubles last year, but that actually heightens the insanity of offering a starting pitcher better than $30M per year, given their fragile nature these days. The Sox might still think they had done fine with the signing had Price been a model citizen along the way. Instead, he publicly commented on how he’d rather pitch for a rival team (the Jays as it were) and got himself into an ugly war of words with a favorite local broadcaster there who happens to be in the Hall of Fame.

Or look at Albert Pujols. Now, Pujols is a lock for the Hall of Fame somewhere down the road. Few players have been better than him in my lifetime, and if you’re under about 115, that’s true of yours too. His .305 career average is Pete Rose-like without the drama, but unlike Rose, he’s got 614 homers and a mind-blowing .947 OPS over his career. That doesn’t improve the fact for the Angels though that he’s a weary 38 years old, limited to DH’ing and let’s be honest, isn’t great at that anymore. Last year he still knocked 23 out of the park, but that was a career low save for injury-shortened years. His OPS of .672 would be low for a middle-infielder, let alone a DH. By contrast, he’d had one of over 1.000 three of his last 4 years in St. Louis before going to the West Coast. It’s doubtful that he’ll get better at his age, but it’s a fact the Angels still owe him $114M by the time 2021 comes to an end.

One look at those types of numbers might- should – give any owner reason to pause before offering up the apparent $200M JD Martinez wants or think about bringing Darvish on board through the mid-2020s.

If the players feel hard done by this off-season, they should point their gaze of disapproval around their own clubhouses instead of to the people paying their sizable cheques.

**Next we’ll examine the Blue Jays few offseason moves so far, including the new OF duo of Granderson and Grichuk.

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