NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Baseball's winter meetings meandered through another uneventful day as frustrated player agents milled around the Opryland Hotel trying to market players that no one seems to want.
It is an odd spectacle.
Multiple Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux, who was 16-6 with a 2.62 ERA last year, remains unsigned and seemingly underpursued. Superstar catcher Ivan Rodriguez has garnered public interest from just the Orioles and the Chicago Cubs. Dozens of lesser players sit home wondering when - or if - the phone is going to ring.
There was a name for this in 1986, when baseball owners conspired so effectively to restrain the free-agent market that superstar Andre Dawson had to offer to sign a blank contract to get a job.
They called it collusion, and the Major League Baseball Players Association accumulated enough evidence of an ownership conspiracy to convince an arbitrator to fine baseball $280 million for collusive behavior from 1986 to '89.
The word is being whispered again this offseason, but the economic landscape of baseball has changed so dramatically in the wake of baseball's new collective bargaining agreement that it would be hard to make the charge stick, even in the face of circumstantial evidence that points toward a heightened level of economic group-think among major-league franchises.
"It's something that you always have to be guarded about when there is a disruption in how labor flows through the employment system," said agent Scott Boras, who represents Maddux and left-hander Kenny Rogers. "Is it just an unusual ownership circumstance or something else? I think that's yet to be determined."
True, only a handful of free agents have signed large, long-term contracts, and even the biggest large-market teams are singing the praises of payroll reduction like a well-rehearsed choir, but the national economic downturn and the changes in the labor agreement have made it all seem too logical.
"I'm doing what I can do to dump payroll," said Atlanta Braves President Stan Kasten, whose team has long seemed immune to the economic concerns of less financially secure franchises. "We've gotten way out of balance."
The Braves already have let two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine jump to the New York Mets. Maddux has been offered arbitration, but outside interest remains surprisingly light.
Going into the first day of the winter meetings on Friday, only 15 of the 168 players who filed for free agency had signed multiyear contracts and only seven had changed teams. Glavine, slugger Jim Thome and third baseman David Bell have signed for guarantees that were in line with comparable players, but the pace of free-agent bidding has slowed to a crawl reminiscent of the late 1980s.
Kasten says the only conspiracy at work is that which was created by the huge annual losses piling up for most franchises.
"You've had too many years of that," he said. "The economics of the industry, despite what some people want to say, have been dreadful."
Believe it or not, a few of the same agents that are bemoaning the soft free-agent market are not convinced that anything fishy is going on.
"I just think it's the economy," said Barry Axelrod, who represents free-agent first baseman Mark Grace. "I use [San Diego Padres owners] John Moores as an example. These owners are aggressive businessmen and they are aggressive investors. Where an $80 million payroll didn't look like that much to the Padres a few years ago, now it looks pretty rough."
The terms of the new labor agreement only increase the urgency to cut costs, because the top-spending teams could be whipsawed by a prohibitive combination of luxury taxes and revenue-sharing transfers.
That does not explain, however, why some of the players who are being pursued are getting surprisingly similar offers from different teams.
"What are the odds that David Bell would get the exact same offer from two teams?" said a high-profile agent at the meetings who did not want to be identified. "But with the new revenue sharing and luxury taxes, you've got huge drags on the six top-spending teams. That's not collusion."
One thing is certain. If this keeps up, the law of supply and demand figures to work in the favor of the owners as the winter wears on, especially after more players are flushed into the market at the Dec. 20 deadline for tendering contracts to arbitration-eligible players.