Lowball free-agent offers irk MLBPA

Do I think baseball teams engaged in collusion to hold down free-agent salaries?

Probably.

Do I think the players' union can prove that the teams engaged in such an illegal conspiracy?

Not easily.

Teams are much smarter than they were in the '80s, when arbitrators ruled in favor of the union in three straight collusion grievances, leading to a $280 million settlement for the players.

The clubs' resistance to long free-agent contracts and increased emphasis on younger, more affordable talent is, in many cases, good business -- even necessary business at a time of great economic uncertainty.

Here are the problems:

Baseball revenues are booming, increasing from $5.2 billion in 2006 to a record $6.6 billion in '09, according to the bizofbaseball.com. Management lost the benefit of the doubt with its conduct in the marketplace in the 1980s and early part of the 2000s. The question of collusion surfaced again Tuesday when new union chief Michael Weiner told the Associated Press that the union had "concerns about the operation of the post-2009 free-agent market . . . and in one fashion or another we will respond."

Weiner clearly is taking a more aggressive position than his predecessor, Donald Fehr, who frustrated many player agents in his final years by failing to pursue collusion claims.

Fans, of course, will have little sympathy for a union that issued a press release Tuesday saying that the average player salary on Opening Day was $3.3 million, not the $2.7 million as reported by USA Today.

Fans also need not worry about a potential work stoppage after the current collective-bargaining agreement expires in December 2011; commissioner Bud Selig would sooner turn socialist than allow his legacy to be tainted by another labor disruption.

Yet, just as fans of low-revenue teams should want those clubs to spend their revenue-sharing money properly, all fans should want their favorite teams to operate appropriately in a legitimate free-agent market.

I've heard numerous complaints from agents the past two offseasons about clients who received multiple similar offers from clubs in free agency.

Perhaps some of those agents got burned by overreaching in negotiations. Perhaps some ignored the obvious impact of the national economic downturn.

In an age of increased statistical analysis, it's even possible that some teams assigned roughly the same values to certain free agents. Yet, in a truly competitive market, there should always be a high bidder.

Something else to consider:

Twenty-nine free agents received deals of at least three years after the 2006 season. That number dropped to 13 in each of the next two offseasons and just nine last winter -- all during a period when baseball was setting revenue records.

The spending spree in the 2006-07 offseason was in part a giddy reaction to a new, five-year labor agreement, while the decline in long-term deals last offseason was in part a reflection of the poor quality of the market.

So, as this indicates, for every argument there is a counter-argument, which is why collusion is difficult to prove.

Was collusion the reason that Red Sox right-hander John Lackey and Brewers lefty Randy Wolf were the only starting pitchers to receive contracts of at least three years last winter?

Or did teams simply decide to avoid granting long-term contracts to mediocre or erratic talents after getting burned so often by such deals in the past?

Weiner, judging from his remarks to the AP, is ready to mount a case, either by filing a collusion grievance or seeking redress in collective bargaining.

Both methods have worked for the union before.

Grievances in 1985, '86 and '87 led to the $280 million settlement in 1990. The owners then agreed to pay triple damages in the '90 CBA if found guilty of collusion again.

No grievances were filed in 2002 and '03, but the owners made a $12 million lump-sum payment to the players -- with no admission of guilt -- in '06.

The money, which already had been earmarked for players, settled unfiled claims of collusion from those two offseasons along with other pending grievances.

No one confused it with a Christmas bonus.

Selig, to some on the players' side, is the common denominator in all this -- he owned the Brewers during the first round of collusion, then became commissioner in 1992.

Yet the owners, facing triple damages, would be foolish to engage in anything even close to collusion.

Employees seek to earn as much possible. Employers seek to pay as little as possible. That's how free enterprise works.

If the owners simply are showing more discipline in free agency, the players have little basis for complaint.

The question is whether the owners crossed the line -- a line that they have crossed before.