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With each passing day now, cries of collusion grow louder. If one free agent of some utility signed every day between now and March 1, there would still be a handful of them left, so any day that doesn’t bring a torrent of news is another step toward the sample size of quacks and waddles being sufficient to call this market a duck. It remains, as ever, extremely unlikely that a smoking gun will eventually be found—that owners and the executives they have hired to run their teams are engaged in open and explicit collusion at all, much less that they have been so foolish as to leave an evidence trail of that. Much more likely, however (and in fact, downright probable, at this point), is an implicit, indirect, frog-in-the-pot form of collusion.

In that light, it’s worth taking a moment to point out that which is obvious, but which might nevertheless go unnoticed if not listed in detail. Addison Reed and Jay Bruce signed free agent deals last week, netting $16.75 million over two years and $39 million over three years, respectively. Reed fits into this winter’s pay scale for relievers in this way:

Player Years Annual Average Value
Team
Wade Davis 3 $17.333 million Rockies
Bryan Shaw 3 $9 million Rockies
Jake McGee 3 $9 million Rockies
Brandon Morrow 2 $11.5 million Cubs
Tommy Hunter 2 $9 million Phillies
Juan Nicasio 2 $8.5 million Mariners
Addison Reed 2 $8.375 million Twins
Pat Neshek 2 $8.125 million Phillies
Joe Smith 2 $7.5 million Astros
Anthony Swarzak 2 $7 million Mets
Steve Cishek 2 $6.5 million Cubs
Luke Gregerson 2 $5.5 million Cardinals
Brandon Kintzler 2 $5 million Nationals
Yusmeiro Petit 2 $5 million Athletics
Hector Rondon 2 $4.25 million Astros

That’s unusually neat scaling. It’s also notable—and hardly seems likely to be a coincidence—that only the Rockies, with their obvious hurdles to luring free agent pitchers, have given anyone a three-year deal. Again, that doesn’t mean the teams are explicitly conspiring to keep things that way, and in order for them to be called onto the carpet, that’s just what would have to come to light. We know that the suffusion of sabermetric savvy into even the formerly unenlightened corners of the league is driving market valuations for every player into ever narrower bands, and it might even be making it easier for the clubs to slot players who hit the market into a consensus hierarchy, like the one we see above.

Here, meanwhile, is where Bruce fits into the landscape of other deals handed out to starting pitchers and position players, thus far:

Name Years Annual Average Value
Team
Carlos Santana 3 $20 million Phillies
Jay Bruce 3 $13 million Mets
Tyler Chatwood 3 $12.667 million Cubs
Zack Cozart 3 $12.667 million Angels
Mike Minor 3 $9.333 million Rangers
Yonder Alonso 2 $8 million Indians
Jhoulys Chacin 2 $7.75 million Brewers
Miles Mikolas 2 $7.75 million Cardinals
Welington Castillo 2 $7.5 million White Sox
Mitch Moreland 2 $6.5 million Red Sox

This snapshot of a very underdeveloped market doesn’t have the same feeling of curious consensus as the one for relievers did, but it’s the top several deals that stand out. Beyond Carlos Santana, there are three guys (Bruce, Tyler Chatwood, and Zack Cozart) who received almost exactly the same deal. That would be unusual, but not necessarily notable, if this were a normal offseason, or if those actual deals were the only offers reported in that range. Neither thing is true. Alex Cobb is believed to have offers from multiple teams at just 10 percent more than what Chatwood received, right around three years and $42 million.

That helps explain why Cobb hasn’t signed; he’s worth more than that and everyone (including Cobb) knows it. It’s harder to explain, however, that he finds himself in this situation at all. Cobb should have a healthy offer of four years or an annual average value of $16 or $17 million by now, but there are indications that he simply doesn’t. Fellow free agent Lorenzo Cain’s highest offer, I was told by two sources, currently sits only insignificantly higher than those reported Cobb offers. It’s now possible that one of these two players (plus Lance Lynn, Mike Moustakas, and Neil Walker) have to settle for something in that range.

Now we’re getting into something more sinister, even if it’s not something actionable. If there’s a kind of slotting system developing (however implicit it might be), then the owners are distorting the salary structure of the game, using their advancements in analytic intelligence and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement as cover. If good players with widely disparate skill sets and likely aging profiles are taking their talent to the market and finding an eerily similar, lower-than-expected amount of money waiting for them, something bad is going on.

By the time spring training games begin, this could all be behind us. It’s possible (and perhaps this should be highlighted more often) that owners are anticipating the $50 million windfall each will receive sometime in the next 90 days (thanks to the league’s sale of MLB Advanced Media, to Disney) and would prefer not to make their major expenditures until that money pours in. Maybe the Scott Boras effect is stronger than we think. (I already think it’s quite strong, and a better explanation for the state of the market than is generally understood.) If we look around this summer and find that the market never heated up, though, and that the cost of a win on the free agent market has significantly sagged, remember these similar deals and offers and consider that the evidence of price fixing (even if it be passive price fixing) might be stronger than we think.

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Robert Hacking
1/16
Given the disaster that most long term high priced deals have been I'm surprised it took teams this long to smarten up. Spend the money on your scouting, analytics and development systems. Not on some guy past his prime.
jnossal
1/16
The only guy I've heard whisper collusion is you, Matt. I thought it was silly the first time and nothing has changed my mind since. Perhaps MLB has just entered third stage hell.
Dan Brunette
1/16
Read fangraphs
Noel Steere
1/16
I do, and have only seen refutations of collusion from Dave Cameron (RIP) and Eno Sarris. Can you provide a link to any articles that support the accusation of collusion?
Daniel Smith
1/16
A lot of people are talking collusion. Clearly something is going on.
tearecrules
1/16
A lot of people also believe the moon landing was a hoax and that Iraq was involved in 9-11. That doesn't mean they're right.
John Wood
1/16
do you live in a cave?
tearecrules
1/16
Given how many of the remaining free agents are Boras clients I'd be more interested if, maybe, having one agency running so much of the free agent negotiation isn't causing it's own little bit of collusion.
dave t
1/19
Expecting Cobb to have easily found a 4 year contract with a $16 to $17 million AAV feels aggressive to me. Fangraphs (Dave Cameron and crowdsourcing, respectively) pegged him to get 4/$60 or 4/$56. MLBTR predicted him for 4/$48. So ending up with a guarantee in the low $40's over 3 years would be a soft market for him. Maybe there's something to the hints in this article, but let's also think through the starting pitching market. There's sort of a top tier of Darvish or Arrieta and then Cobb or Lynn as a second tier. And we've also got projections for very few close divisional races (only the AL East and to some extent the NL Central) with not that many expected Wild Card contenders either. In the AL, the Red Sox and Angels currently look pretty well clear of the other wild card contenders. So in part I'd ask, "who are the teams in on those starting pitchers?" Because if there are only a couple teams in on Darvish and Arrieta, and then maybe those teams seeing Cobb or Lynn as Plan B options if they unexpectedly miss on both Darvish and Arrieta, plus a couple more teams in on both Cobb and Lynn, where's the impetus for teams to be aggressive? Bidding in free agency ultimately needs to be driven by scarcity of valuable assets. If, however, not many teams feel like there's a big benefit in a couple win upgrade, then I'm not tremendously surprised if teams are making lower than expected offers and simply waiting. Six teams in total in on four pitchers means that a couple teams will miss out and have to find other options. Four teams in on four pitchers means that the last team to sign one of them may well get a pretty team-friendly deal as the only remaining logical landing spot.
Noel Steere
1/16
It would be helpful to your argument if you listed the FA signings from previous years, to provide prospective to your accusation. It also depends on the veracity of the Hosmer rumors. Such a wild overpay would seem to refute your argument. Also, you buried the lede: You have sources telling you Cain is only getting offered $42M/3 ($14M AAV)? That's the strongest piece of evidence (though still flimsy until he actually signs for that amount). Actual smarts about veterans age curves seems far more likely than "implicit collusion" (is that how you'd describe the airline industry, Matt?). If Ryan Zimmerman was a Free Agent this offseason, do you honestly believe he'd even get Carlos Santana's contract? And would you add that to your "evidence"?
matt lawson
1/16
I'm not mad at BP, I'm just disappointed that I don't enjoy the articles as much as I used to. It feels like I am only finding an article every other week that I "like" whereas in the past it was every day. As for this article, I don't feel like it's fair to say there's any evidence of collusion at all until you see above average players being left on the sidelines when the regular season starts. Until then it just seems like both parties are still negotiating and the things they valued in the past don't have as much (or have too much) weight.
ofmontreal
1/16
Jeez people, Matthew's not saying it's collusion. He's saying the evidence points to price fixing, which is really different. This being BP, I think we can feel it acutely because essentially what we as a group have been railing about for decades(!) is come to pass. Teams aren't over-paying for FA's and suddenly nothing is happening. Country Fairs without rubes aren't very fun. That said, this game of chicken is gonna get crazy in a few weeks. At this point I'm expecting a bunch of very short contracts, which may be the future anyway.
tearecrules
1/16
The MLBPA has been sacrificing amateur and international players' interests for years. They weren't wrong to do so; they weren't Union members yet. But it was a completely foreseeable consequence of continually making such talent cheaper that, eventually, the league would wise-up and it would decimate the MLB Middle Class player. On top of it we're seeing a MLB which has a de facto salary cap with teeth and a suspected-to-be incredible free agent class coming open next year. That teams are trying to position themselves for a run on Harper, Machado, Donaldson, etc and avoiding the luxury tax is not surprising.
jnossal
1/17
+1
Noel Steere
1/16
He's not saying it's collusion? "Much more likely, however (and in fact, downright probable, at this point), is an implicit, indirect, frog-in-the-pot form of collusion."
Edward Sherwood
1/17
This is such a strange article, taking a position in opposition to the sabremetric community. Basically it seems to be taking teams to task for not overpaying for the sorts of free agents that most analysts have been telling them for years are bad investments (aging position players, relievers). Doesn't the fact that many of those same analysts are now employed by teams provide a possible explanation.
Kennedy How
1/17
Prince Fielder. V-Mart. Nuff said. The Tigers started getting into the sabremetrics over the past couple of years, and V-Mart's contract today is a real albatross. Big payroll, zero farm system. Not a good combo to pay FAs.

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