Atlanta Braves: Specter of collusion re-rears its ugly, aged head

General Manager of The Braves, Alex Anthopoulos. (Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
General Manager of The Braves, Alex Anthopoulos. (Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

MLBPA head Tony Clark believes a statement by the GM of the Atlanta Braves gives evidence of collusion in pursuit of free agents.

Whatever Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos was thinking during his session with beat writers, his brain wasn’t fully engaged.

Anthopoulos used a conference call discussion to, among other things, assure reporters who cover the team that his organization has been hard at work. At a minimum, however, his methods raised valid questions about whether the Braves —  and possibly and other teams – spent October more or less systematically violating terms of the MLB Basic Agreement.

This is what Anthopoulos told those beat writers.

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“We’ve had time to connect with 27 of the clubs (except for the Astros and Nationals) …we had a chance to get a sense of what the other clubs are going to look to do in free agency…”

Anthopoulos went on from there, indicating that the talks had also involved window-shopping trade possibilities. But it was the comment about inter-team free-agent discussions that drew the ire of MLBPA executive director Tony Clark. He read it as potentially collusive.

“The statements made by Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos call into question the integrity of the entire free-agent system,” Clark said in a press release. He added, “the clear description of club coordination is egregious, and we have launched an immediate investigation looking into the matter.”

Late Wednesday night,Anthopoulos issued a statement in response to Clark’s statement designed in his eyes to clarify his own previous statement. In that follow-up, he said, “at no time during any of these calls was there discussion of individual free agents or the Braves’ intentions with respect to the free agent market. To the extent I indicated otherwise during my media availability on Monday, I misspoke and apologize for any confusion.”

There is an element of self-servingness in Clark’s response. For as long as there has been a functional MLBPA – that is, since Marvin Miller – the Players Union has hyperventilated about collusion.

At the same time, those fears have from time to time been legitimate. In the 1980s, the teams were three times found guilty of collusion by an arbitrator. Owners eventually paid more than $100 million in overall damages to settle those cases.

It is not illegal for teams to discuss their mutual interests in potential free agents. But it does violate a provision of the Basic Agreement, which since the late 1960s has governed the procedures involved in the signing of players. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is in force until 2021, continues that restriction against teams colluding in their pursuit of free-agent talent.

Did the Atlanta Braves collude with other teams in the discussions Anthopoulos revealed? In strict terms, it probably depends on what was said and what level of specificity the discussions reached.

If, however, those discussions were sufficiently detailed that they revealed to teams the level of interest – or lack of same – they might face in their pursuit of various free agents – an arbitrator certainly could find the calls to constitute collusion.

Say the Braves learned in the process of those calls that few if any other teams were interested in a particular player they wanted to sign. That information would certainly have the potential to depress the market value of that player, working to the Braves’ advantage. That’s precisely the reason the collusion prohibition is in place.

If Anthopoulos held discussions with other teams that were of anything more than the most general nature, that certainly could be construed as collusion. It’s also possible the calls were entirely superficial, and Anthopoulos’s comments constituted nothing more than attempting to persuade local media that he was hard at work

But it was hardly smart of Anthopoulos to suggest to the writers that the Atlanta Braves and other teams might have exchanged usable free agent information, just as it would hardly have been smart of him to make such inter-team contacts in the first place. Beyond the potential financial damage a new collusion ruling could bring, there’s also the damage to team-player relations to be factored in.

MLB team owners were taught a $100-million lesson in the 1980s. One would think lessons that costly would still linger.

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But Anthopoulos was only 12 years old when the past collusion ruling was issued. He may need a refresher course on the rules. It might be a costly course.