Algorithm? Collusion by any other name smells just as foul

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Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant at Wrigley Field during a game in 2016.

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs reliever Brad Brach might’ve shined one of the brightest lights on some of the forces behind historically slow free-agent markets the last two years.

And it’s not a reach to think a modern-day version of collusion has been a primary factor in a broken free-agency process that generates rancor among a growing number of players and agents every day that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned.

“Teams say they like you, but they’re not making offers,” said Brach, who eventually signed a one-year, $4.35 million deal last month. “And then you finally get offers, and six or seven teams are giving you the same offers. It’s just kind of a weird process, and nobody really knows what’s going on right now.”

Except that Brach asked some of the teams about the identical offers and similar timing.

“They told us we have an algorithm, and here’s where you fall on the scale,” Brach said.

Is algorithm the new word for collusion?

“I don’t know,” Brach said with a chuckle. “You guys can make of that what you want. It’s just kind of weird that all the offers are the same, and they come around the same time, and everybody tells you there’s an algorithm, but you figure teams would have different ones.”

Algorithm: one more factor to rile players on the way toward what is fast looking like baseball’s first labor fight in a generation.

When asked a few weeks ago about the torpid markets, Cubs president Theo Epstein alluded to an increasing reliance by teams on improving metrics for assessing value and predicting performance.

Agents and players such as Cubs union rep Kris Bryant have pointed to the tanking trend that can take 10 teams at a time almost wholly out of a given player market.

And hard amateur-spending caps and soft big-league caps through luxury taxes have caused an increasingly tightened grip on spending by clubs over the last decade at a time industry revenues and franchise values — driven by players who double as labor and product — have risen dramatically.

Average player salaries in that time have stagnated, even dipping last year for the first time since 2010.

“It’s a weird time that we’re in,” said Cubs veteran Jon Lester, whose six-year, $155 million deal came during one of the last robust free-agent markets (2014-15). “It’s kind of a sad time that we’re in.

“We’ve got two of the greatest superstars in the game, faces of baseball, that don’t have teams right now, and we’re starting [spring training]. There’s close to 100 free agents that are still out there.

“Something’s got to give.”

The last two free-agency winters have been the slowest-moving since the three winters of proven collusion in the 1980s.

This time around, it’s even more conspicuous — or suspicious, depending on the vantage point — because two 26-year-old perennial All-Stars remained unsigned as camps opened across Florida and Arizona this week.

With 10 All-Star appearances and an MVP award combined and at such relatively young ages, Harper and Machado are among the rarest of free agents, but neither has experienced anything close to a bidding war for his services — a few teams engaging in serious talks for each.

A year ago, the attractiveness of this year’s market was one of the excuses teams commonly trotted out to explain the inactivity of 2017-18.

“The best outcome for all parties is sort of an equilibrium that’s reached, where you have a robust market where players are doing really well, where revenues in the game continue to grow, where ownership is profitable and being a player is really rewarding, as well,” Epstein said.

Usually two out of three ain’t bad. But in this case, if conditions persist, baseball could be facing its first labor war since the 1994-95 strike/lockout if players get angry enough by the time the CBA expires in three years.

Three decades ago, a paper trail of evidence led to owners being found in violation — twice in three years — of collusion rules after strikingly similar offers were made to free agents, many of whom wound up re-signing with their original teams or signing surprisingly short-term deals.

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Last month, Bryant said players around the league were getting upset and the system had to change.

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen raised the prospect of a strike more than a year ago.

And then Friday, Cardinals veteran right-hander Adam Wainwright told a St. Louis radio station: “Unless something changes, there’s going to be a strike — 100 percent.”

Many agents and players say teams are at least violating the spirit of the CBA.

“Certainly, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to have animosity, labor strife, talk of work stoppages, things like that,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “What’s in the best interest of every person in our office and the clubhouse and the coaches’ room is that we grow the game. That’s where we should be focused.”

Cubs brass resists the suggestion that the spirit of the CBA has been breached.

“We don’t get a copy of the CBA and look at it and say, ‘How do we get this and spend no money?’ ” Epstein said. “We get a copy of the CBA and say, ‘OK, where can we spend money, where can we make investments to get a competitive advantage and go ahead and put the best product on the field and win as many games as we can.’ ”

Which brings us back to algorithms.

“Hopefully, we can kind of clean this up, and nobody has to do anything drastic,” Lester said.

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