The NY Times' Murray Chass writes that there is a whiff of collusion in the offseason baseball effluvium. He cites Tom Glavine's inability to get the four-year contract that he desired, Robin Ventura's paycut, and Mike Stanton and Edgardo Alfonzo being cut loose from their teams as examples. It is something that I, too, have been considering.
In the Glavine case, baseball is trying to limit contracts to 3-years because of new insurance strictures, especially ones to aging players. Chass does point out that Glavine got a $3 M raise via free agency.
Ventura, on the other hand, signed a ludicrous contract that became an albatross around the Mets' collective neck until they traded him to the Yankees. He will also be 35 next year and had a poor second half. To expect that he be signed at the same salary would be unrealistic.
Chass does make his case by pointing out that:
[A] players' lawyer maintained that tax avoidance cannot fully explain what is going on at the moment because only three teams were over the $117 million threshold in 2002, with five others at or over the $100 million mark.
He also points out that the owners may be conducting a bank of offers to free agents. This is something that was introduced in the labor negotiations and nixed by the players. "But agents suspect that the clubs are still using some kind of bank, although they can't provide any specifics. Another lawyer close to players noted that clubs can simply resort to telling reporters the contents of their contract offers to free agents and letting the reporters spread the word."
I wouldn't put it past them, but as yet I am not convinced that collusion is dictating the tenor of the free-agent market. There are a number of issues that are at play. First, the insurance changes in the past few years make it difficult for teams to give out contracts longer than three years. Second, there is a new climate in the wake of the new CBA. Teams are hesitant to take on long-term debt. Even though they may not be near the threshold as yet, that doesn't mean they won't creep up to it in the next few years. Besides the luxury tax issue, local revenue sharing has been increased by 14%. This may have put a crimp in a number of teams offseason spending (though it does not explain why the teams receiving payments are not spending more money). Lastly, teams try to emulate the World Series winner. The Angels won with a modest budget, and now everyone is pointing themselves in that direction. Also, remember that the players negotiated treble damages in the case of collusion during the last CBA. That is a pretty powerful dissuader