Major League Baseball is investigating whether comments attributed to Mets sources about the team’s reluctance to pursue free-agent outfielder Aaron Judge constitute a violation of baseball’s collective bargaining agreement.
An article published on the Mets’ television network’s website on Nov. 3 said the Mets would not bid against the Yankees for Judge. Details in the story caught the attention of the Players Association, which asked the Commissioner’s Office to investigate whether improper communication occurred between the respective owners of the clubs, according to sources briefed on the situation.
A separate comment by Astros owner Jim Crane on his team’s website Tuesday, saying Justin Verlander was seeking a contract similar to Max Scherzer’s, also could prompt scrutiny from the Players Association if the union perceives it to be a violation of the CBA.
The union maintains the right to file a grievance over either or both situations. To win a grievance, the union would need to prove that the markets for Judge and/or Verlander were damaged, which could be difficult considering they are two of the offseason’s most coveted free agents. But the union remains sensitive to the threat of the owners conspiring to hold down free-agent salaries, as they did more than 30 years ago in the sports’ biggest collusion cases.
Recent CBAs specifically prohibit the sharing of information on player contracts, saying, “Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.” The league in its investigation is expected to request that Mets owner Steve Cohen and Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner provide records of any phone, text and email conversations that took place between them during the period in question.
The SNY.tv article stated the Mets’ position on Judge had not changed since April when team sources said the club would not fight the Yankees for the outfielder if he became a free agent during the offseason. The article also said Cohen and Steinbrenner “enjoy a mutually respectful relationship, and do not expect to upend that with a high-profile bidding war.”
Officials from MLB, the Players Association and the Mets declined to comment, and the Yankees and Astros did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On Thursday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the report at the owners’ meetings.
“I’m absolutely confident that the clubs behaved in a way that was consistent with the agreement,” Manfred said. “This was based on a newspaper report. We will put ourselves in a position to demonstrate credibly to the MLBPA that this is not an issue. I’m sure that’s going to be the outcome. But obviously, we understand the emotion that surrounds that word (collusion) and we’ll proceed accordingly.”
Three times in the late 1980s, independent arbitrators ruled the owners worked together to avoid bidding competitively on free agents. A settlement of the three cases resulted in the owners agreeing to pay the players $280 million. The players later alleged the owners also engaged in collusion in 2002 and 2003, and the owners agreed to pay the players $12 million without an admission of guilt as part of the 2006 CBA.
In addition to the specific language in the CBA regarding collusion, the agreement spells out the details the parties are not permitted to disclose publicly about contract negotiations. Both stipulations remain in effect in the new CBA, which the parties are in the process of formally codifying.
If the union files a grievance over the situation with the Mets and Yankees, an arbitrator will determine whether collusion occurred. The union separately would need to prove Judge was harmed. He would stand to receive triple damages.
Crane’s comment falls into a different category. Agents say a club official who speaks publicly about a contract negotiation potentially influences the market, effectively using the media to create the type of information bank clubs employed during the collusion era. The CBA includes a pledge from the league that clubs, “will not operate an information bank with respect to free agents.”
As reported by MLB.com, “Crane said Verlander is seeking a deal similar to Max Scherzer, who signed a three-year, $130 million contract with the Mets a year ago.” The CBA states that neither players nor clubs, “can make comments to the media about the value of an unsigned free agent, regardless of whether discussions have occurred.” It also lists a “non-exhaustive” list of prohibited comments, including, “Player X is seeking more than Player Y received.”
“I know him well, so we’ve been pretty candid,” Crane said of Verlander. “He’s looking at the comp, which I think there’s only one or two … JV’s probably got a few years left, and he wants to make the most of it. I think he’s going to test the market on that.”
In theory, Crane’s remarks could scare off potential suitors for Verlander, depressing his market. Crane has assumed a greater role in baseball operations since the Astros were penalized in Jan. 2020 for illegal electronic sign stealing, according to sources familiar with his operation of the club. The team is currently without a GM following Crane’s decision last Friday to part with James Click.
Evan Drellich of The Athletic contributed to this story.
(Photo: Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)