Major League Baseball is investigating whether the New York Mets and New York Yankees violated the collective bargaining agreement after a story explaining the Mets’ hesitancy to pursue Yankees star free agent Aaron Judge prompted the MLB Players Association to request an inquiry.
Commissioner Rob Manfred confirmed the investigation Thursday after The Athletic first reported on it Wednesday night.
The investigation, sources confirmed, centers on a paragraph in a story on the website of the Mets’ television station, SNY, which discusses the “mutually respectful relationship” between Mets owner Steve Cohen and Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner and how they “do not expect to upend that with a high-profile bidding war” for Judge.
The union asked MLB to investigate communications between Cohen, who purchased the Mets in 2020, and Steinbrenner, whose father, George, bought the Yankees in 1973, sources said. The league plans to request records of phone calls, texts and emails between the two, according to sources.
Manfred, when asked Thursday about the reported investigation, told reporters he is “absolutely confident that the clubs behaved in a way that was consistent with the [CBA].”
“We will put ourselves in a position to demonstrate credibly to the MLBPA that this is not an issue,” Manfred said. “I’m sure that’s going to be the outcome. But obviously we understand the emotion that surrounds that word [collusion] and we’ll proceed accordingly.”
Similarly alarming to the union, sources said, were comments made by Houston Astros owner Jim Crane to league-run MLB.com, which after an interview with Crane wrote that he said free agent ace Justin Verlander “is seeking a deal similar to Max Scherzer, who signed a three-year, $130 million contract with the Mets a year ago.”
Nobody involved in the free agent process, according to past CBAs, “can make comments to the media about the value of an unsigned free agent, regardless of whether discussions have occurred.”
The MLBPA’s fear of collusion dates to the 1980s, when arbitrators ruled owners had created an information bank to suppress free agent salaries. Owners agreed to pay $280 million to players for three separate violations of the CBA.
Five years ago, the union considered filing a collusion grievance but declined to do so. The similarity of free agent offers in recent seasons left agents believing collusion still existed, but the lack of firm evidence kept the union from pursuing such a claim.
The last successful collusion case for players came in 2006, when MLB paid $12 million from claims in the 2002-03 offseason. Any successful collusion case would pay triple damages.
The union could file a grievance on behalf of Judge, but winning it would necessitate evidence that any communications between Cohen and Steinbrenner hindered his market — a difficult burden of proof to reach. Judge is expected to sign a deal for more than $300 million, with the Yankees and San Francisco Giants seen as his likeliest suitors.
The Mets, who ran a pre-luxury-tax-penalty payroll of nearly $288 million in 2022, currently have commitments nearing $230 million for 2023. Their co-ace with Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, is a free agent, as is center fielder Brandon Nimmo. The combined annual salaries of deGrom and Nimmo could approach $70 million. Signing Judge has not been a priority for the Mets since he turned down a $213.5 million contract extension offered by the Yankees this past spring training, according to the SNY story.
Astros general manager James Click left the organization last week after his contract expired and he rejected Crane’s one-year offer with a minimal raise. In his absence, Crane negotiated a free agent contract for reliever Rafael Montero and, according to sources, has taken an increasingly large role in baseball operations.
Crane told MLB.com he did not plan to hire a new GM until at least the new year.
In the most recent accessible CBA — the one negotiated in March remains in review by the parties and is not yet publicly available — an eight-point list of comments prohibited by owners and players includes: “Player X is seeking more than Player Y received.” In addition to suggesting Verlander is looking for a Scherzer-level deal, Crane told MLB.com that the 39-year-old right-hander is “looking at the [comparable player], which I think there’s only one or two.”
Proving collusion, between teams, via an information bank or through knowledge distributed by the media, can be challenging, although isolating specific individuals does help satisfy one portion of the CBA standard, which says: “A violation of this agreement will be established only if the grieving party identifies the specific individual at the Club, Commissioner’s Office, Players Association, or the specific player agent or player who was the source of the comment.”
ESPN’s Buster Olney contributed to this report.