MLB free-agent signing chill raising questions from union

MLB free-agent signing chill raising questions from union

Published Feb. 1, 2014 10:25 a.m. ET

It's almost February, and dozens of baseball free agents are still looking for work.

The players union is concerned that club executives may be violating the collective-bargaining agreement by commenting publicly about their negotiating positions.

Some on the players' side also are expressing growing frustration about how the market is playing out for certain free agents, specifically top starting pitchers.

Rob Manfred, baseball's chief operating officer, told FOX Sports that the union has not specifically complained to him about the nature of the market, but acknowledged that the two sides have discussed remarks by club executives to the media.


"We have had conversations with the union about public comments concerning free agents," Manfred said. "We have a mutual interest in assuring that there is no excessive commentary."

Rules in the CBA state that team officials cannot communicate through the media the substance of economic terms discussed by players and clubs -- the facts of an offer, or whether the club will decline to make an offer.

The rules, designed to prevent clubs from influencing a free agent's market value, were adopted after the 2010-11 offseason as part of the "anti-collusion" language in the CBA.

Labor peace in baseball is assured through 2016, but the clubs' conduct during the free-agent market historically is a source of conflict between the two sides. In recent offseasons, the union repeatedly has voiced concern that clubs are using the media to manipulate the market.

The slow pace of the bidding for starting pitchers is a separate issue. Spring training is weeks away, but three prominent right-handers -- Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo -- remain unemployed, as do a number of second-tier starters.

Santana and Jimenez received qualifying offers from their previous clubs, hurting their respective market values. Teams lose a draft pick and the accompanying pool money for signing such "compensation" free agents, adding to the acquisition cost.

The delay in the posting and signing of Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka also contributed to the lag in the market. The decision this week of right-hander A.J. Burnett to pitch rather than retire muddled matters further.

Santana and Jimenez perhaps should have anticipated the impact of the qualifying offer and accepted the one-year, $14.1 million proposals. Both pitchers have their flaws, and Arroyo, while effective and durable, turns 37 on Feb. 24.

Still, the better starting pitchers generally fare quite well in the market, signing quickly and receiving generous contracts. This offseason has been something of an exception; right-hander Matt Garza has received the biggest multi-year guarantee for a domestic free-agent starter, $50 million over four years from the Milwaukee Brewers.

At the same time, teams are spending heavily on pitching that they consider elite -- the Los Angeles Dodgers awarded lefty Clayton Kershaw a $215 million extension, and the New York Yankees signed Tanaka for $155 million. The total expenditure by clubs on free agents thus far is more than $1.77 billion, a record.

The union could consider filing a formal grievance against management if certain players linger on the market. But considering all of the money that teams have spent, collusion -- a conspiracy by clubs to depress free-agent prices -- would be difficult for the players to prove.

In the 1980s, independent arbitrators ruled three times that the baseball owners were guilty of conspiring to hold down free-agent salaries, and the owners agreed to pay the players $280 million to settle the cases.

The players again accused the owners of collusion in 2002 and '03, and the owners agreed to pay the players $12 million, but with no admission of guilt.