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MLB’s new brand of collusion has halted the off season

It’s actually not new. It’s been happening for years. We’re just now being inconvenienced by it.

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros workout Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

On November 2, some 79 days ago, MLB Trade Trade Rumors released their list of the top 50 free agents. The next day, Masahiro Tanaka (ranked No. 5 on their last), elected not to opt out of his contract and instead remain with the Yankees. Since Tanaka never actually ventured into free agency, here’s the list of their top ten players (omitting Tanaka and dipping down to No. 11) and where they are now with less than a month to go before Spring Training.

  1. Yu Darvish (Unsigned)
  2. J.D. Martinez (Unsigned)
  3. Eric Hosmer (Unsigned)
  4. Jake Arrieta (Unsigned)
  5. Mike Moustakas (Unsigned)
  6. Lorenzo Cain (Unsigned)
  7. Wade Davis (Signed with the Rockies)
  8. Lance Lynn (Unsigned)
  9. Greg Holland (Unsigned)
  10. Alex Cobb (Unsigned)

Months have gone by, and nine of the top ten free agents from November 4 (let’s kick it back to the day after Tanaka decided to stay in New York) remain without a home.

So, what gives?

The word being thrown around many circles this winter is collusion, but this is not collusion in its traditional sense. We’re not in a repeat of the mid 1980’s where owners have secretly decided to stop spending money on free agents. And if we are, Rockies GM Jeff Bridich clearly didn’t get the message.

By strict definition, collusion is defined as a “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.” If you dig through MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, you’ll find that that there’s special attention noted to parties acting in concert. Specifically ...

“Players shall not act in concert with other players and clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs”

But what if the Collective Bargaining Agreement has it wrong? Or more specifically, what if they characterized one of the groups wrong? Here, the owners and players are separated into two large groups; each seen as a risk to collude among their own kind and potentially screw the other group in a deal.

However, lumping all of the players into one huge group might not be appropriate here because they’re not all getting the same treatment at the same time. The Players Association is comprised almost unanimously of veteran voices, and to put it mildly, they’ve done a much better job of looking out for themselves than they have looking out for young players.

If you take the liberty of classifying young and veteran players into two separate groups, a path to collision between the veteran players and the owners suddenly becomes obvious. The deal works something like this:

The owners get: A little more than half of the profit generated by the game. (Technically they’re not supposed to get more than 50%, but we’d all be naive to think they didn’t cut themselves a slightly larger part of the pie from time to time.)

The veteran players get: Just under half of the profit generated by the game.

The two sides then work together to make sure that as little of the players’ half of the pie gets to the young guys as possible. The owners like it because it’s less money out of their pocket, and the veterans like it because it means they get to keep more of their half of the pie.

As a result, players with less than three years of service time are paid close to league minimum, high draft picks are locked into slot money, minor leaguers get paid a laughable salary (Lord do they get paid a laughable salary), and international free agents are controlled with a cap. None of these groups are truly represented when the CBA is written, and as a result, they all get squeezed.

The young stars, despite being the engine of the game’s success, are left to fight over crumbs. But they stay in line because they’re also given something else: The knowledge of knowing that some day, they’ll too become veteran players and get a seat at the grown up table. That promise of a future bite at the apple is what keeps this whole thing going.

Now to be fair, this isn’t really collusion because there’s nothing secret about these agreements. Everything here was done right in the public eye. The problem is that most of it goes overlooked because the majority of fans would classify the players as one big group and don’t care if young players are vastly treated differently than veteran players. But make no mistake, this effort by the owners and veterans to funnel as much money as possible away from the young players helped lay the foundation for this snoozefest of an off season.

Young players are getting paid so little in comparison to their veteran counterparts that their surplus value has been driven through the roof in the eyes of GMs, and this winter, we’ve finally reached a tipping point. The front offices are becoming more and more analytical, the game’s revenues continue to grow, and the veteran players are providing less and less value. Take a look at this Tweet from Mike Petirello yesterday that shows the collapse of WAR among players 30 and over since 2000.

So now you’ve got a situation where older players are providing less and less value, and yet they’re also getting paid more and more. All you have to do is look at the value of the Qualifying Offer which is derived from the value of the highest 125 salaries in the game (the vast majority of which belong to players 30 or older).

At the end of the 2012 season, the Qualifying Offer was worth $13.3 million. Just five years later, at the end of the 2017 season, it ballooned to $17.4 million. This represents a 31 percent increase in pay for the highest paid players in the game in just five years.

Now let’s compare that to the minimum salary, which is a good estimate for what pretty much any player with less than Super Two status will be making. In 2012, the league minimum was $480,000. Five years later in 2017, it climbed to $535,000. That’s only an 11 percent raise.

And percentage points is the nice way to put it. In pure dollar value, veterans have seen their salaries go up by millions over the last five years while young players have only seen it increase by $55,000. (Gee, I wonder why GMs are prioritizing getting young, cost controlled talent into their organizations more than ever before?)

Before wrapping this up, I wanted to share one final nugget that shows just how unbelievably warped the current financial structure is in MLB. Below are the top 15 players in 2017 ranked by Fangraphs WAR. I’ve added their salaries on the right side of the table.

On average, these players, who currently represent the best of the best in our game, made an average salary of $6,942,547 last season.

Now here’s where it gets screwy. I took the bottom 15 players in 2017 ranked by Fangraphs WAR (minimum 250 plate appearances), and added their salaries to the right side of the table.

On average, these players made an average salary of $9,575,122 last season. So almost unfathomably, the absolute worst players in the game are getting paid more money than the absolute best players in the game. That is ass backwards! And a reflection on a broken system that’s designed to keep money away from young players and pay guys for what they’ve done in the past, rather than what they’re likely to do in the future.

Perhaps next winter’s all timer free agent class can breathe some life back into the hot stove and get GM’s to whip out their checkbooks again, but there’s also a bigger, long term problem here that’s not going away. Front offices have figured out that the way to win is to acquire surplus value (players who provide more WAR for less money), and since young players are getting paid baseball’s equivalent of rent money for landing on Baltic Avenue in Monopoly, they’re currently providing pretty much all of it.

The solution here is simple: Pay the young, valuable players more money. But that won’t happen as long as the veterans and the owners are acting in concert with each other and colluding to ensure that everybody else is left fighting over scraps.