The free-agent market has been open for business for nearly a month and only a small handful of the 150 or so players who filed for free agency have signed contracts with new teams.
Makes you wonder.
Major League Baseball announces that it will fold two franchises and then puts it on the street that the industry will lose $519 million this year. The result is a level of uncertainty not experienced in baseball since the disastrous labor war of the early 1990s ... and a sudden attack of economic sanity on the part of owners and general managers throughout the industry.
Inquiring minds want to know. Is this coincidence or collusion?
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig probably would tell you it's common sense, but he's too busy defending Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption in Washington to worry about anything else right now. The players union has its suspicions, but it is playing a little defense of its own, trying to avert a contraction plan that could be a serious attempt to deal with the game's economic problems ... or simply an early bargaining bluff in what promises to be another long labor dispute.
Whether it was real or just real clever, the controversial contraction announcement that Selig delivered two days after the World Series seems to be having a real impact on the free-agent market.
No, it's not anything like the free-agent freezeout of the 1980s, when the owners all but shut down the market and were eventually fined $280 million by an arbitrator for illegal collusion. There are offers out there. Players are signing, albeit very, very slowly.
There will probably be a burst of activity at the winter meetings that are just getting under way in Boston, but the combination of the contraction announcement and the results of baseball's latest frightening economic report might have convinced a lot of clubs to tread a little more lightly in the free-agent market.
Selig and his strategists had to know that the simple act of announcing the dissolution of two teams would have the immediate effect of throwing the off-season into limbo. The prospect of a dispersal draft - which was supposed to take place in mid-December - created the possibility that some teams would be able to acquire a marquee player without spending big free-agent money or giving up solid players in return.
Why sign a free agent when you might have a chance to fill your needs with a couple players off the 80-man draft list created by contraction?
Of course, it has become pretty obvious that there will be no dispersal draft this year, so the only obvious factors preventing baseball from engaging in another free-agent frenzy are the economic doom and gloom being broadcast by the commissioner and, just maybe, the prospect that the owners will get some real payroll concessions in the upcoming labor negotiations.
The Yankees can spend $21 million over four years for a setup reliever and offer $125 million to free-agent slugger Jason Giambi, but they are one of the few teams that can almost print its own money. The rest of the baseball world apparently got the message.
The next couple of weeks will tell just how clearly that message was heard.
An alternate theory
It is possible, however, that baseball owners are getting smarter, though anyone who suffered through the past seven or eight work stoppages will find that difficult to believe.
Everybody saw how agent Scott Boras pried an astonishing $252 million out of Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks for superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez last winter. It didn't take a secret ownership conspiracy to figure out that something was wrong with the bidding system when the record for a guaranteed contract in any professional sport can go from $126 million to $252 million in one jump.
Does anyone really believe it was a coincidence that Boras settled on a number that was exactly twice the previous record (held by NBA star Kevin Garnett)? It was as if Boras was winking at baseball ownership and saying, "Forget it, you're overmatched."
Some teams have altered their bidding style to avoid such offer inflation. The Yankees continue to pay top dollar, but they stole Mike Mussina from the Orioles by making their best offer and insisting on an immediate answer. They were determined not to let their offer float around the market for somebody - real or imagined - to overbid. Presumably, they are doing the same thing with Giambi.
The Orioles are taking a similar approach. Director of baseball operations Syd Thrift has insisted on talking personally to some free-agent players to gauge their actual interest in coming to Baltimore. The organization is understandably sensitive to the possibility that they might be used to drive up the price somewhere else.
That's why the club did not rush to make a hard contract proposal to Jason Isringhausen, whose interest in the Orioles did not seem sincere.
Closer in our midst?