Major League Baseball is investigating whether comments attributed to Mets sources about the team’s reluctance to pursue outfielder Aaron Judge constitute a violation of baseball’s collective bargaining agreement.
An article published on November 3 on the Mets’ television network website said the Mets would not bid against the Yankees for Judge. Details in the story drew the attention of the Players Association, which asked the Commissioner’s Office to investigate whether there had been any improper communication between the clubs’ respective owners, according to sources briefed on the situation.
A separate comment from Astros owner Jim Crane on his team’s website Tuesday, saying that Justin Verlander was seeking a contract similar to Max Scherzer’s, could also lead to an investigation by the Players Association if the union of is believed to be a violation of the CBA.
The union reserves the right to make a complaint about either or both situations. To win a suit, the union would have to prove that the markets for Judge and/or Verlander were damaged, which could be tough considering they’re two of the off-season’s most coveted free agents. But the union remains sensitive to the threat of owners conspiring to keep free agent salaries low, as they did more than 30 years ago in the sport’s biggest collusion cases.
Recent CBAs specifically prohibit sharing information about player contracts, saying “Players are not allowed to work with other players and clubs are not allowed to work with other clubs.” The league’s investigation is expected to ask Mets owner Steve Cohen and Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner to provide records of all phone, text and email conversations that occurred between them during the period in question.
The SNY.tv article stated that the Mets’ stance 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 that Cohen and Steinbrenner “enjoy a mutually respectful relationship, and don’t expect to rock it 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.
In the late 1980s, independent arbitrators ruled on three occasions that the owners collaborated to prevent competitive bidding for free agents. A settlement of the three cases resulted in the owners agreeing to pay the players $280 million. The players later alleged that the owners were also involved in conspiracy in 2002 and 2003, and the owners agreed to pay the players $12 million without an admission of guilt as part of the 2006 collective bargaining agreement.
In addition to the specific language in the collective agreement regarding collusion, the agreement spells out the details that the parties are not allowed to disclose about contract negotiations. Both provisions remain in force in the new collective agreement, which the parties are currently formally codifying.
If the union files a complaint about the situation with the Mets and Yankees, an arbitrator will determine whether there is collusion. The union would have to prove individually that Judge had been harmed. He would receive triple compensation.
Crane’s comment falls into a different category. Agents say a club official speaking publicly about a contract negotiation may be influencing the market and effectively using the media to create the kind of information bank clubs used during the collusion era. The CBA contains a commitment from the league that clubs “will not operate a database related 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 “comment to the media about the value of an unsigned free agent, whether or not there have been any discussions.” It also includes a “non-exhaustive” list of prohibited comments, including “Player X seeks more than player Y has received.”
“I know him well, so we’ve been pretty candid,” Crane said of Verlander. “He’s looking at the comp, which I think is only one or two… JV probably has a few years left and he wants to make the most of it. I think he will test the market on that.”
In theory, Crane’s comments could scare off potential suitors for Verlander, straining his market. Crane has taken on a larger role in baseball operations since the Astros were penalized in January 2020 for illegally stealing electronic boards, according to sources familiar with his club operations. The team currently has no GM following Crane’s decision last Friday to part ways with James Click.
Evan Drellich van The athletic contributed to this story.
(Photo: Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)