Baseball’s Free Agent Follies: Dumb Clients, Conflicted Agent

Baseball’s super-agent Scott Boras has his annual off-season conflict of interest problem, and as usual, neither Major League Baseball, nor the Players’ Union, nor the legal profession, not his trusting but foolish clients seem to care. Nevertheless, he is operating under circumstances that make it impossible for him to be fair to his clients.

This year, Boras has three aging outfielders in his stable, all with some Hall of Fame credentials, all with fading skills, and all without jobs. Their names are Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Andruw Jones. Thanks to a glut of unsigned hitters still on the market, the price for each of these three—once, when they were young, in the 8-figures a year range—is falling fast. According to an analysis by ESPN, only six, and possibly as few as three, possible teams are still looking to fill slots on their rosters suitable for Ramirez, Damon, and Jones, and none of them will sign more than one, if any.

In other words, the three men are in competition with each other, just as they are in competition with the other veteran sluggers, like Jim Thome and 2010 Silver Bat winner Vlad Guerrero, who also are looking for work. The problem is, all three are represented by Boras.

How can one agent simultaneously serve the interests of three clients who are in direct in competition with each other? He can’t. If he is trying to sell Toronto on paying Manny Ramirez $5 million a year to be the Blue Jays DH, and the team only wants to pay $3 million, he could land the job for his other client, Johnny Damon, by piping up that Damon could do the job for two million less and play some fair left field every few days in the bargain. If Toronto wants to play even less, he can recommend Jones, the cheapest of the three. Presenting those alternatives, however, would require betraying Ramirez.  Boras is pledged to make the argument that signing Manny for $5 million is the best possible deal for the Jays. If Damon is also looking to play in Toronto, Boras is obligated to argue that signing him is the best possible deal….and the same for Andruw Jones. He can’t do all three, or even two of the three: Boras is conflicted in three different directions. It is practically impossible for Scott Boras to find jobs for all three of his declining players without sacrificing the interests of one of them for the other.

The usual remedy for conflicts is informed consent on the part of the clients involved, but consent is only an ethical  solution if Boras reasonably believes that his duty of loyalty to any one client won’t be limited by his duties to the others, and he can’t promise that. Consequently, his only ethical courses are to get his three clients to agree not to seek employment with the same teams, seriously limiting their chances of being hired by any team, or to refer two of them to new agents.

Scott Boras, as in prior years when he has had similar conflicts, hasn’t done either of these. Instead, he is allowing his three aging, talented, trusting and not-too-bright clients to believe that he is capable of doing the impossible: finding the highest paying jobs possible for all three, without ever trading the welfare of one client for another. They believe this because Scott Boras is known to be the “best.” But he can’t be “the best” for all three.

Johnny, Manny and Andruw are being taken, and two of the three will probably lose millions as a result. Boras is being unethical to continue conflicted representations, and the union and the Major League Baseball are wrong to allow him to do it.

By now, however, it’s a tradition.

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