Games Owners Play

By Murray Chass

February 8, 2009

Major League Baseball officials bristle at the suggestion that the owners are playing games again with free agents. No one actually is accusing the owners of the kind of games that cost them $280 million for conspiring against free agents in the 1980s, but the slow pace of the free agent market and the number of free agents who remain unsigned as pitchers and catcher prepare to begin spring training next weekend raise questions in some people’s minds. My mind is one of them.

Last week in this space I offered a theory to explain the platoon of unsigned players. Although club officials cite the economy as the primary reason, I wrote, they may be using the economy as a cover for leaving veteran players jobless. Their real aim, I suggested, could be to have an impact on future free agents, making them think they better sign quickly for less money than they might want or face the danger of going jobless, too.

Whether it’s that sort of long-range scheme or something as simple as clubs illegally sharing information on offers they make to free agents, few would be surprised if the owners were found to be doing something to fix the free-agent market.

“Inane!” one high-ranking major league official said. He made the remark to another official in a private conversation so I will not identify him. He meant it was inane to think the clubs were plotting against free agents when everyone knows about the poor state of the economy.

Rob Manfred, the chief management labor executive, acknowledged that there are conversations between the commissioner’s office and the 30 clubs about free agents but said they engage in no conversations or practices that the collective bargaining agreement bars.

“We don’t cross-fertilize,” he said, referring to an exchange of information. “If a team tells me we offered X, I don’t tell other teams. Ever since I’ve been here, whether the contract requires it or not, we have been very careful about swapping information from one club and giving it to another club. It can be a practical problem. If I disclose something a club has told me in confidence, I may get in trouble with the first club.”

Manfred also pointed to the action of the commissioner’s office when baseball’s credit line was not renewed. It negotiated a new line of credit for $125 million, from which clubs can borrow.

“During this offseason,” Manfred said, “we undertook to inject liquidity into the market by redoing the industry loan agreements. Whenever you inject liquidity into the market it improves the free agent market so to suggest that we somehow have depressed the market artificially against this backdrop is ridiculous.”

Had baseball not redone the credit line, Manfred explained, clubs would have had to begin repaying almost immediately loans they had made on the industry line of credit. “We could have said pay it back and we’d sit tight,” Manfred said. “It would have taken cash out of the system.”

Officials of the Players Association have not raised questions or suspicions about the clubs’ free-agent activity. In fact, Donald Fehr, the union’s executive director, and Michael Weiner, the general counsel, did not return calls seeking comment.

But the owners’ history works against them. Agents, who serve on the front line of the free-agent wars, may have their suspicions, but for now they are keeping them to themselves.

“It’s been challenging,” Arn Tellem said. “These are difficult times and clearly what’s happening in the global economy has impacted the signings this off-season. Obviously we can look at the Yankees and a number of players have come out of this fine. But you can look at players who haven’t been signed and you can’t ignore the fact that there’s been a huge number of players who have been impacted by what’s happening in the world.”

I asked Tellem if he had any thoughts on my theory. “I’ve heard other theories in line with what you are saying,” he responded. “I’m not in a position to draw any conclusions. Once we get finished and see how all this ends before the season starts there will be plenty of time, and I assume the union will assess what happened this winter, if it was the economy, which it could be, or if there were other forces beyond the uncertainty of the economic times.”

In my discussions with various people about this issue, I heard an intriguing possibility. One person, an agent, cited the owners’ meeting last November at which Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, lectured the owners on the sad state of the economy.

“That was a pivotal moment,” the agent said. “Volcker scared the hell out of the owners. Were owners acting on an individual basis after that meeting, or was that designed to implement something of a collective basis? That will be seen as a significant moment.”

As much as the owners deny that they colluded in the 1980s and as much as they might deny a similar intent now, I will always remember a scene that was repeated several times in the ‘80s. Whenever I used the word collusion in an article about free agency to describe what appeared to be happening, Barry Rona laughed.

Rona was the Rob Manfred of his time, and he repeatedly scoffed at the idea that the owners were engaged in collusion against free agents. He did not laugh when two different arbitrators found the owners guilty of collusion a total of three times.

It’s Not Monopoly Money

Scott Boras isn’t crying collusion or accusing the owners of any other dirty trick against free agents, but he does wonder about how some spend their money, specifically their revenue-sharing money. Clubs are supposed to use the money they get from revenue sharing to improve their teams, whether that means signing free agents or enhancing their player development system or hiring a more expensive but more capable general manager.

But, the agent said, “Revenue sharing is not meant for an owner to improve his financial standing.”

“When you have record revenues for years as they have had,” he added, “when you have revenue sharing, you have some teams responding appropriately, like Kansas City.” But then, he added, there are others, like Pittsburgh, whose previous owner, Kevin  McClatchy, “buys the club with debt, pays off the debt with revenue sharing and sells the club for a profit. Yet the club continues to be in last place. The existing ownership is saying the same thing: we have to reduce our debt before we sign free agents. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone paid off our mortgage? I don’t think fans quite understand what it means.”

Boras also noted prices that teams are being sold for. “I read a report that the Padres sold for over $500 million in this economy,” he said. “Here’s a last-place team out there garnering that kind of money in this market. The Cubs were sold for almost a billion. It demonstrates how well teams are doing.”

Will Someone Please Give Manny a Job?

The best known free agent still unsigned is Manny Ramirez. It is widely presumed he will end up back with the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom he played the last two months of last season and hit so well the Dodgers wound up in the playoffs.

Asked what was happening with Ramirez, his agent, Scott Boras, said, “Manny’s fine. He’s a great talent. The process is a long one. The timing is irregular.”

Boras often takes longer than most agents in getting his free agents signed, especially his high-priced free agents, but this is later than even most of the late signings.

“I had a free-agent season similar to this when I signed Pudge and Maddux very late in the process,” he said. In 2004, Greg Maddux signed with the Chicago Cub Feb. 18 and Ivan Rodriguez signed with Detroit Feb. 2.

Speaking of Ramirez, Boras said, “I’ve learned over time talent has no wrist watch. The games start in March. Manny’s in great shape. He’s been hitting and doing everything. I don’t have a timetable on this. I just know my client wants his fair market value. We’ve been listening and negotiating. The teams he plays for win. Manny makes a club millions of dollars. He increases attendance.”

In having Ramirez agree to his trade by Boston to the Dodgers last summer,  Boras got the Red Sox to drop two option years at $20 million a year from Ramirez’s contract. In November the Dodgers offered the long-haired outfielder $45 million for two years, only $5 million more than Ramirez could have earned in Boston.

When Ramirez didn’t respond, the Dodgers eventually withdrew the offer. Then they offered him salary arbitration, knowing he could win a $25 million or even $30 million salary for the 2009 season. Ramirez, however, rejected the offer, looking for a multi-year contract instead.

More recently the Dodgers offered $25 million for one year. The answer once again was no, and that’s where their negotiations stand.

The San Francisco Giants are the only other team that is believed to have interest in Ramirez, but they are unlikely to give him the long-term contract he wants.

Boras would like the Giants to step up if for no other reason than to worry the Dodgers, who need Ramirez’s run production in their lineup but haven’t demonstrated a willingness to offer Ramirez anywhere near the contract Boras wants. Four or five years for $25 million a year would do nicely, thank you.

Last winter Boras miscalculated the market when he had Alex Rodriguez opt out of his contract with the Yankees. Rodriguez wanted to stay with the Yankees and had to scramble, ostensibly without Boras, to get back. He nevertheless wound up with a better contract, a 10-year deal worth $275 million to replace the one that had $81 million left, and some people believe Boras orchestrated the whole plan.

Whether the agent did or didn’t, he did have significant input in Ramirez’s departure from the Red Sox, and now he appears to have miscalculated again as Ramirez sits and waits to find out if he can secure a living wage.

Waiting Patiently in His Own Economy

Ken Griffey Jr., another major name, is also among the unemployed, but he isn’t seeking a huge contract.

“I don’t think the economy is a factor,” Brian Goldberg, Griffey’s agent, said about Griffey’s unemployment. “Junior’s salary expectations have been modest from the beginning. He’s realistic.”

He can afford to be realistic; he has another income. Beginning this year, Griffey will receive $5 million a year for 16 years as the payout of the deferred money from his nine-year, $116.5 million contract with Cincinnati.

Griffey, once considered baseball’s best player, better than Barry Bonds, before encountering a series of leg injuries, is 39 years and coming off surgery on his left knee, which was primarily responsible for his poor performance last season (.249, 18 homers, 71 runs batted in).

“We’re still talking to the same four teams we have for a while,” Goldberg said without identifying the teams except to say there are two in each league. The Tampa Bay Rays were interested, he said, until they signed Pat Burrell.

Goldberg said two factors have slowed Griffey’s signing: the need to explain his performance last season and the number of younger outfielders available as free agents.

“He knows he’s not going to get signed until some of these younger, longer-term guys get signed,” Goldberg said. “He knows he’s a fallback.”

Waiting for a Market Revival

Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu and Garret Anderson are corner outfielders who do not have jobs. Milton Bradley, Raul Ibanez and Pat Burrell (at left) are corner outfielders who have jobs. Scott Boras doesn’t represent any of them, but he had an observation about them.

“Bradley got a good contract; Ibanez got a good contract,” Boras said. “The contract that blocked the market for corner outfielders was Burrell.”

Greg Genske, Burrell’s agent, “took a bad deal,” Boras said. “The corner outfield market stopped. You’re talking about a frozen market.”

Ibanez signed with Philadelphia for 3 years and $31.5 million, Bradley with the Chicago Cubs for 3 years and $30 million. They are both represented by Sam and Seth Levinson. Burrell agreed to a 2-year, $16 million contract with Tampa Bay.

Genske, who also represents Dunn, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Neither did Peter Greenberg, who is Abreu’s agent. Anderson doesn’t have a listed agent.

In Need of a Job and a Personality Change

Apparently the music stopped playing, and Orlando Cabrera, one of the regulars in the game of musical shortstops in recent years, has been left with no place to play. Edgar Renteria joined San Francisco for $18.5 million over two years, and David Eckstein accepted $850,000 for one year from San Diego.

Cabrera, though, remains unsigned even though he had the highest batting average among the trio (.281) and played in the most games (161).

“He’s very talented, but he’s a very caustic  guy in the locker room and a lot of guys stay away from him,” a baseball person said. “Renteria is not near the player, but everybody keeps Renteria. But Cabrera is still a very good player.”

Boo on Royals Nation

It was too good to be true. Research of a Web site with newspaper archives last week found no reference to “Royals Nation,” making Kansas City the lone team among 30 major league teams that did not have nationhood. Or so I thought.

Then a reader wrote saying that he posts on various sites as Royals Nation. He was proud of that distinction and seemed to be offended that I overlooked Royals Nation. Given the context in which I wrote about all of the nations, I am sorry he revealed himself. I was giving the Royals credit for their mature exclusivity.

 

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.