Punishing Kids for Breaking a Rule No One Follows

Last week, Baseball America reported that someone in the Philadelphia Phillies organization contacted the NCAA about potential infractions involving the Phils’ fifth and sixth round draft picks, Ben Wetzler and Jason Monda respectively. Reports indicated that someone with organizational ties told the collegiate governing body that the two college juniors broke rules by using an agent to negotiate on their behalf. The NCAA cleared Monda and he started the season, and will finish his collegiate career for Washington State University. However, the NCAA recently suspended Wetzler for 11 games, so he will miss about one fifth of his last season at Oregon State.

Attorney Richard Johnson has represented college juniors who have dealt with similar situations. He describes the way players, parents, agents, the NCAA and Major League Baseball deal with the NCAA’s “no agent” rule as a “dance.” The history of that rule is outlined masterfully here. The gist of that rule is this: The NCAA prohibits high school seniors and college juniors from using an agent to negotiate on their behalf with major league teams, while conceding that players and their families are allowed to seek counsel from an adviser. This is where the dance begins, but sometimes when it ends–the player doesn’t go home with the team that picked him.

The only serious bargaining chip a player in the June amateur draft holds is a scholarship to play college baseball the next year. Therefore, players’ families often handle the rule by using agents as advisers and try to use what little leverage they have to their advantage. Everyone involved in the process knows this. Since a player can accept advice as long as the adviser doesn’t directly deal with teams, parties on both sides of negotiations have worked inside a grey area separating adviser and agent. The grey area also is where the difference between NCAA acceptance and infraction lies.

Teams often communicate to the family a dollar amount they are willing to offer, contingent on their selection of that player. Families are allowed to seek advice about the offer, receive that advice, and then let a team know how they feel about it.

A source with knowledge of the process indicated that families also reach out to major league teams and convey their own wishes and expectations. Some email the terms to teams, and organizations of course assume that the terms are often a result of advice from agents. In fact, it would seem that in those cases, the email address may be the only thing separating the agent from a direct negotiation.

If that seems silly, it’s because it is silly. The difference between a college junior writing an email after seeking advice and an agent who gives the advice writing an email himself is a technicality. It’s a technicality which, even if ignored to the player’s detriment, still does nothing within anyone’s reasonable definition to affect that player’s amateur status. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the NCAA from suspending players if it suspects an adviser crossed that technical line.

The latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, which took effect in 2012, capped the amount teams can offer in total to their first 10 selections. While there had been an agreement in place before to “slot” players and draft picks in a descending scale, some teams–notably the Detroit Tigers–often ignored it. They, and a few other teams, found a way to sign top five talents even though they may have been selecting much lower in the first round.

A prime example was the $7.3 million deal Detroit gave prep pitcher Rick Porcello in 2007, one that reportedly angered Commissioner Bud Selig at the time. When almost every team in the first round passed on Porcello, knowing that only a huge bonus would lure him away from his commitment to pitching at the University of North Carolina, Detroit selected him 27th. Then the Tigers gave him a deal not only worthy of the No. 1 overall pick, but one in total value that hadn’t been reached in nearly a decade for a high school pitcher.

It’s reasonable to assume that Porcello and his family were not caught off guard when the Tigers selected him and subsequently made the kind of huge offer, possibly the only kind of offer, it took to get a deal done. Porcello signed with high-profile agent Scott Boras, who had evidently advised the Porcello family. The Porcellos and Boras must have let the Tigers lead, because that little ball ended with both parties living happily ever after.

While Detroit had an owner who was willing to spend big to get talent like Porcello, apparently enough of his colleagues preferred to take steps ensuring that prices could be kept under control. With competitive balance the goal (as well as keeping aggressively spending teams like Detroit from rigging the system), the new slotting system went into effect two years ago.

Here is a wonderful recap of the beefed-up slotting system that’s currently in place. In summary, if teams go over the spending limit, they face penalties. From the article:

Notably, if you don’t sign one of your picks in the first 10 rounds, you can’t spend that money on other picks. You lose that allotment from your signing allowance.

The biggest impact the CBA has had on the amateur draft is the amount of money a big prospect can demand. Signing bonuses routinely ran into the millions, even for later picks. But, under the new deal, those millions shrunk to six figures and teams have a harder time luring away a player who has a serious commitment to go to college in the fall. It’s easy to see how this is good news for frugal teams, but bad news for the best amateur players.

Writers have been quick to label the Phillies as “rats.” They’ve likened the organization to a spurned suitor out to exact revenge against a coquettish target. We can take the analogy further and speculate that Philadelphia’s targets refused to be plied, not by alcohol, but instead by a threat of jeopardizing their senior year of college baseball. If the analogy is apt, the target is screwed.

That’s a picture that makes sense here, given that we know the players were drafted, then chose to go back to college for their senior year, and then were subsequently turned in to the NCAA, reportedly by someone in the organization that failed to sign them. It’s certainly possible the act of turning them in was a follow-through on the threat to do so in the first place.

But while everyone enjoys a good match-up of little guy (college kid) versus money-grubbing corporate behemoth (MLB or NCAA, take your pick), there are many interesting questions surrounding this story.

The obvious one, a two-part question everyone seems focused on, is who on the Phillies did this, and why.  Deadspin noted almost right away that the Phillies will receive compensation for losing their picks, but what they’re really out was the opportunity to spend the money they had allotted on Wetzler and Monda on other targets. No, they didn’t lose the money, but they did lose the chance to get something for that amount in their slot budget.

It’s tempting to guess that the answer to both parts is linked, evident in the prevailing notion that a rogue member of the Philadelphia organization was negatively impacted by the players’ decision to go back to school and subsequently retaliated.

Not only do we not know if that’s what happened, but it obscures a more sinister motive that’s just as plausible.

In 2012, the Phillies couldn’t agree to terms with Alec Rash, their second round pick in the June amateur draft. The Rash family had reportedly asked for a signing bonus of $800,000 while the Phillies offered between $600,000 and $700,00 in total compensation (cash plus money for college tuition). At the time, Phillies assistant general manager Marti Wolever said that going too far above $600,000 would have penalized them under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

That made sense, but he then sounded petty when he dismissed the young man’s decision, saying “It’s probably best for him to go to school anyway.” He said he’d been frustrated in his talks about a bonus with Rash’s parents, implying that they were inconsistent and talking with several teams.

Again, that happened to Philadelphia in the first year of the new slotting rules for June draft picks.

Since this isn’t the first time since the new slotting rules went into effect that a drafted player drew the ire of a Philadelphia executive, maybe the complicity in this latest episode goes further up the organizational flowchart than the “spurned lover” theory would indicate. Johnson, who has represented players in similar situations, thinks that may be the case.

Perhaps this is an organizational decision to punish drafted players who won’t take it or leave it when the Phillies make their offer. If so, the veil on the threat to future draft picks is not only lifted, but cast aside with a flourish, implicitly threatening a phone call to the NCAA if future draft picks don’t let them lead.

One of Johnson’s clients, former University of Kentucky pitcher James Paxton, drew the NCAA’s attention when he didn’t sign with Toronto the summer before his senior year. The NCAA’s case against Paxton seemed at the time to be built solely on a sports blog’s indication that Toronto had dealt directly with Paxton’s adviser when the Blue Jays failed to sign him after making him an early-round pick. Paxton ended up sitting out his senior year in lieu of battling the NCAA in a fight he felt he couldn’t win. He hadn’t received any money, and hadn’t thrown a pitch as a professional.

While he currently pitches for the Seattle Mariners, he missed the chance to finish his career in college and was denied the opportunity to increase his draft value for the next summer.

With that undesirable result setting a precedent, the potential threat of an outright phone call to the NCAA would carry even more weight.

The incident causes short-term embarrassment to the Phillies. It may tempt families like the Wetzlers, agents like  Boras, and college coaches to advise kids to steer clear of teams like the Phillies and take their chances with other teams or on the next draft. In fact, an agent told Baseball America that he would advise clients in the future to give the organization the cold shoulder.

This story may not be about a rejected scout lashing out. It may be about an organization’s exploitation of draftees.

The bigger question is whether there may be legal recourse. We don’t know much, but it appears that one entity theoretically could have threatened another over the acceptance of a deal reportedly worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Someone called the NCAA  in an apparent attempt to spur an investigation that could cause trouble for the athlete in question. What the player did was likely what is widely considered to be standard operating procedure; the Phillies’ calling it into question is not. This indicates that there’s a chance the threat to do so was made beforehand.

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  1. Bombo Rivera said...

    I think it’s really easy to look at this situation and conclude that the Phils are acting out of spite and little else. As perhaps the least progressive organization in MLB (at least in their attitude toward modern analysis), they’re easily imagined as inflexible to the point of stupidity.

    I don’t know if this is the case, but the image of the Phillies as a 1960’s, pre-Marvin MIller “use-the-whip-hand” organization is pretty strong.

    • Husky Blur said...

      Wasn’t it the Phillies who drafted JD Drew with a top pick and then couldn’t sign him? I believe he was represented by Boras and then sat out the entire year so he could reenter the draft the following year. I remember thinking what a punk that kid was at the time(and that remains unquestioned), but it is another example of the Phillies trouble with draft picks and bitterness towards the system. Although I do think Drew was asking for an insane signing bonus.

      • Walligans said...

        Remind me again why J.D. Drew was a punk? He struck me as a bit of a recluse who put his head down and played the game.

      • Steely Glint said...

        And today, having learned nothing, Drew is unemployed again because he and Boras are asking for too much money again.

        Greed. You have to hate it.

  2. Rush Fan said...

    STEPHEN Drew might be out of work for the moment due in part to a high asking price, but JD Drew (an entirely different person) retired after the 2011 season.

  3. BobDD said...

    The draft is suspect enough for starters, so why is monopolistic MLB allowed to make even more strictures on amateurs who should be free agents? Actually I can accept the draft as a compromise, but more than that and I’m ready to point out the legal inconsistencies of MLB’s anti-trust exemption. So while I agree the Philly organization is the villein in this story, it seems to me that it is set up by some unfair mischief in the draft rules.

    And then I realize that before these “unfair rules” that agents/draftees were taking advantage and the “unfair rules” are only in response to that. I guess all sides have proven that they will act in accordance with their best interests, whether that is a crime or not. Wow! Reality.

  4. WLewis said...

    Rules like this have/had a purpose but the concept is dated. Would you really even explore a business deal dealing with these dollar amounts without counsel. It’s important to have that adviser / negotiator on your team actively working on your behalf. Great article Dave.

  5. Davan S. Mani said...

    Need to marry a Christian white woman to be team player in baseball or you will be considered a cancer or scapegoat. Racist instructors and management in the minors. ALWAYS ON YOUR BUTT!

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