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Major League Baseball is investigating whether or not “improper communication” occurred between the Yankees and the Mets regarding the free agency of slugger Aaron Judge, at the behest of the Players Association. The source of all of this was a story by Andy Martino, published on November 3, that discussed how Hal Steinbrenner and Steve Cohen had a “mutually beneficial” relationship, and therefore the Mets would not attempt to pry Judge away from the Yankees:
It was a reasonable topic to wonder about then, and remains so today. But the truth of the situation also remains unchanged: On that day, Mets sources said that they did not plan to fight the Yankees this offseason for Judge. With free agency set to begin next week, that has not changed.
Talking to Mets people about this all through the year, the team in Queens sees Judge as a Yankee, uniquely tailored to be an icon in their uniform, stadium and branding efforts. Owners Steve Cohen and Hal Steinbrenner enjoy a mutually respectful relationship, and do not expect to upend that with a high-profile bidding war.
The only way people involved can see the Mets changing course and pursuing Judge would be if the Yankees somehow declared themselves totally out of the bidding.
It’s not like this was just an off-handed comment by a single source: Andy Martino apparently kept up with it over the course of the year before finally publishing something after the postseason ended, and discovered that this continued to be the Mets’ way of thinking. The problem is that this alone doesn’t constitute collusion: it would take the Mets and Yankees working together for that to be the case. The teams actually discussing that the Mets were going to stay out of it as a favor to the Yankees, so that there would be one fewer suitor to contend with and therefore a potentially lower final contract offer for Judge coming out of New York. Or, in the other (less likely) direction, even: the Yankees refusing to bump up their offer much higher than it already was, so the Mets can swoop in without having to contend with the Yanks. Regardless of which it would be, that part is going to be tough to prove without some direct evidence.
Which doesn’t mean there is no such evidence, but considering Rob Manfred’s public comments on the situation boil down to, “eh, nothing is going to come of this I bet,” well… it’s kind of hard to believe that such evidence would even see the light of day:
“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.”
Noted under-the-rug sweeper Manfred isn’t exactly a reliable source for anything here, but again, how do you prove these conversations happened unless there’s a record of them? Steinbrenner and Cohen could have had a private in-person conversation at the owners’ meetings, or maybe they’re smart enough to use fully encrypted messaging systems that leave no record for outside investigators to check in on. The end result of hiding their tracks and actually being innocent look pretty similar.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the PA should just let this report go away without requesting an investigation, as they did. It’s also entirely possible that Steinbrenner and Cohen were sloppy and left everything the Players Association would need for a grievance out in the open. And Manfred, who needs to come out looking like he’s more than just the face of the owners’ whims and desires if he’s to get the players to hate him even a little bit less, could punish these two teams if anything is unearthed, which would also remind the other 28 owners to be smarter about any behaviors that could be construed or identified as collusion.
I don’t think this is the course things will take, but there’s only one way to find out. Same goes for Jim Crane openly discussing what Justin Verlander is looking for on the market — that feels like something the PA might need to pursue, since teams are not supposed to openly discuss contracts and negotiations like Crane recently did when he said Verlander wants a Max Scherzer-esque deal this winter. The problem with all of this, as Ken Rosenthal pointed out, is this:
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.
If Verlander gets a deal right around that Scherzer level, it’s tough to say he would have gotten more if only Crane hadn’t opened his mouth: three years and $130 million or so for a pitcher entering his age-40 season would be a huge dub for Verlander, even more significant than Scherzer’s own since he’s two years younger than his former teammate. And Judge, he was offered a seven-year, $213.5 million deal by the Yankees before the 2022 season, in which he set a new American League record for homers, took home MVP honors, and nearly won a Triple Crown, too. Even if he doesn’t fully max out at what his camp might be looking for following that season, will it be because the Mets and Yankees conspired, or because Judge has made it through just three big league seasons without missing significant time due to injury as he enters his age-31 campaign?
This isn’t necessarily me saying Judge and Verlander should be handled more cautiously in free agency by the league — he’s not old yet, and when Judge is healthy there are few players as explosive as he is, while Verlander is already pitching like a historic anomaly, one a team can get a hold of without having to promise seven years or what have you — but to point out that these are players that owners can probably get away with doing basically whatever they want with, so long as there is no footage of them twirling their mustaches while explaining their evil plans to collude. So they will: Mets sources and Crane will test boundaries to see what they can get away with saying, and go from there. The PA, regardless of the chances of discovering evidence of collusion, have to keep up with these events if only to keep the owners from feeling invincible. So expect to see more poking and prodding from the ownership class to see just what the teeth of the new CBA feel like.