TORONTO – A window into the level of mistrust between players and owners in baseball opened at 5:59 p.m. ET Wednesday, when the Major League Baseball Players Association sent out a statement that threw a Molotov cocktail into the business of the off-season.
The union, executive director Tony Clark said in the release, is launching “an immediate investigation” into comments Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos made to reporters on a conference call earlier this week that “call into question the integrity of the entire free-agent system.”
“The clear description of club co-ordination is egregious,” Clark added.
Statement of MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark pic.twitter.com/Xk5gsJQuGM
— MLBPA Communications (@MLBPA_News) November 6, 2019
Serious stuff, which makes you think that Anthopoulos, usually the careful and calculated sort, must have really stepped in it and said something damning.
But the comments in question are anything but.
This is the Anthopoulos quote players have gotten their backs up over: “Every day you get more information. And we’ve had time to connect with 27 of the clubs – obviously the Astros and (Nationals) being in the World Series, they were tied up – but we had a chance to get a sense of what the other clubs are going to look to do in free agency, who might be available in trades.”
In a vacuum, it’s innocuous, and Anthopoulos has issued some variation of that low-grade boilerplate material at the beginning of every off-season dating back to his days as GM of the Toronto Blue Jays.
If the union thinks they’ve found a smoking gun of collusion, well there isn’t one here, although the reaction prompted Anthopoulos to release a statement of clarification, walking back the free-agent part of his comments.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) November 7, 2019
Regardless, what gives?
Well, we’re not in a vacuum and players have had their guard up over the way the past two off-seasons have played out, as players have curiously languished in free agency, upending the way the open market has typically operated.
The explanation from clubs has been simply that the game has changed, projection modelling has improved and front offices are better able to value players these days. The issue is with agents and players not adapting with the times, the argument goes.
Beneath the surface, and sometimes publicly, players have been seething, which is setting the stage for a major fight when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in December of 2021.
The first salvo from Clark came during the 2018 All-Star game, when he told assembled media that, “What we experienced last off-season was a direct attack on free agency, which has been the bedrock of our economic system. And if that’s going to be different, then we have some very difficult decisions to make moving forward.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred quickly rebutted that claim by saying “direct attack connotes some sort of purposeful behaviour” and that “the only purposeful behaviour that took place in the free-agent market last year is that our clubs carefully analyzed the available players and made individual decisions as to what they thought those players were worth.”
“If you look back and have been watching very carefully,” he continued, “at the end of the year you’ll look at the performance of those players and I’m pretty sure, based on what’s already in the books, you’re going to make the judgement that the clubs made sound decisions.”
The rhetoric between the sides escalated again earlier this year, on Feb. 6, when another slow off-season for free agents – Bryce Harper and Manny Machado had yet to sign their megadeals – prompted Clark to call teams’ behaviour a “fundamental breach” that “threatens the very integrity of the game.”
MLBPA head Tony Clark calls teams’ behaviour this off-season a “fundamental breach” that “threatens the very integrity of the game.” MLB replies that some agents aren’t adapting to new conditions. CBA expires in Dec. 2021 and fight is well underway. pic.twitter.com/qyOezP6NPB
— Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi) February 6, 2018
All of which explains why Anthopoulos ended up in the union’s cross-hairs.
Teams are always trying to find out what the others are doing, trying to figure out who they might potentially match up with in trades, compete against for free agents, etc. It’s a basic level of due diligence that every front office does, often in methodical detail.
Still, it’s a thin line from there to collusion and the CBA prevents clubs from acting in concert with one another as a way to hold down salaries. The game’s ugly history of owners colluding to artificially restrain player earnings in free agency looms large in the backdrop here, and makes the union’s vigilance completely justifiable.
Seizing on Anthopoulos’ comments, then, is more of an opening salvo into the winter machinations to come, the union making clear that it won’t passively wait to see how things go, but rather call out perceived misdeeds as they arise.
After consecutive conservative off-seasons, the players are demanding that things play out much differentially this winter. And if they don’t, then the calling out of Anthopoulos is simply a taste of the acrimony to come.