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Collusion collision? Slow markets for Harper, Machado could threaten labor peace

If anyone would know baseball ownership collusion when he sees it, it should be Andre Dawson, right?

But even the man who wound up with the most undervalued contract of any free agent during the three-year period of proven collusion in the 1980s seems unsure what he has seen unfold this winter and last.

After the slowest free agency winter since those collusion years, the average major-league salary declined in 2018 for the first time in nearly a decade.

And as two of the top free agents in a generation linger on the market with limited teams involved, the anger level seems to be growing among the players’ rank and file, including Cubs union rep Kris Bryant and former Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta.

Harper

“It’s tough as a player because this is what you work for,” said Dawson, who was a coveted three-time All-Star when he hit free agency after 1986 and eventually offered the Cubs a blank contract. He was paid a base salary of $500,000 for his MVP season in 1987.

“You work for that moment, and you realize that the game keeps getting bigger, the game keeps getting richer,” he said. “And maybe you feel that this is a unique opportunity to finally get paid market value.”

Industry revenues have grown well past the $10 billion mark annually. Owners who often hide behind artificially low luxury-tax thresholds when setting their payroll budgets are seeing individual profits across the board like never before. And their franchise values have skyrocketed to an average of more than $1.6 billion (Forbes 2018 valuations).

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“But I don’t want to call it collusion,” Dawson said before sounding like he’s describing just that, surmising that “a message is being sent” by owners regarding big contracts. “They’re just reluctant unless you’re THE marquee guy.”

Such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado?

“It’s really weird,” said Bryant, who lobbied for the Cubs’ player rep job last year after watching that market unfold. “Two of the best players in the game, and they have very little interest [from many teams], just from what I hear.

“It’s not good. It’s something that’s going to have to change. I know a lot of the other players are pretty upset about it.”

The word “strike” has been uttered by some who were too young to remember the last one in 1994-95.

Bryant said he thinks the recent trend of teams tanking to rebuild — even in big-revenue markets such as Chicago — could be behind much of the free-agency deep freeze.

Cubs president Theo Epstein responded to a fan’s question about it during the Cubs Convention on Saturday, suggesting it’s an organic result of the “new breed of GMs” over the last 10-15 years who rely more on deep analytical dives to determine values of players.

Before that, he said, “There weren’t as many methods to discern exactly how much impact we were getting from each dollar. Now you can quantify it a lot more. It’s made the whole process a little bit more methodical.”

Epstein suggested that this might amount to a “feeling-out period between players and agents in sort of the new baseball economy” and that the next collective-bargaining agreement in 2022 might address the issues enough to at least allow the offseason market to speed up.

Owners might have the most to lose if they don’t encourage salaries to reflect revenue growth more. If players decide to put up a fight, it’s historically not a fight owners can win.

“There’s a lot of teams out there that have the money to spend, but they’re not doing it,” Bryant said. “It’s just very confusing to me. I think if I was an owner or president or GM I would love to have Bryce Harper or Manny Machado on my team.

“It’s definitely something that all of us baseball players should pay attention to.”