Once Again, Baseball Agent Conflicts Are Hurting Players Who Don’t Understand Why

Baseball writers are the tools of baseball player agents, useful idiots who write on and on about the underpaid millionaire players and the unfair owners, who won’t pay them what they “deserve.” They scrupulously avoid educating readers about the unethical player agents who manipulate the system and the players for their own benefit, not their clients.  I have written about the unregulated and largely ethics-free baseball agents before, but their conduct this off-season is unusually revolting.

At the top of the list, as usual, is mega-agent Scott Boras, who cleverly treads the line between being an agent and a lawyer—he is both—while having too many stars under his thumb for the sports organizations or bar associations to hold him to account. For example, as a lawyer, Boras would be absolutely bound to tell his clients about a settlement offer, and would be subject to disbarment if he rejected an offer without communicating it to his client (you know, like you regularly see lawyers doing on TV and in the movies). However, there are no player agent rules that require an agent to communicate a team’s salary offer to a player. Agents can, and presumably do, reject offers without their clients ever hearing about them. This, of course, avoids the problem of a baseball star saying, “Oh, hell, that’s more money than I could ever spend anyway. I know it’s less than we talked about, but go ahead and take it.”

Agents have conflicts of interest so grand, and apparently so little understood, that meaningful consent from the client, theoretically the remedy, is virtually impossible. Let’s look at Bryce Harper, Boras’s client who is seeking more than $300 million dollars over a ten year guaranteed contract. Harper is 26 years old and has already made 49 million dollars, not counting endorsements. The functional utility of each dollar he earns is less than the one earned before in his situation. Realistically, there is very little difference between a $250,000,000 contract and a $300,000,000 contract to Harper, except from an ego perspective. The extra 50,000,000 won’t make any difference to him. Boras, however, is a different matter. Let’s say his cut of Harper’s salary is 5%.  He’ll get 15,000,000 if Harper signs for the high figure, but “only” 12,500,000 if Harper agrees to the lower figure. $2.5 million means nothing to Harper: he could throw it down the toilet, and wouldn’t feel a thing. The difference to Boras, however, is much greater in practical, and add to that the marketing advantage of being able to tell potential clients that he set the new all-time record for a free agent contract for his client.

Then there is the Zero Sum Conflict, which I wrote about in a long piece for Hardball Times, and again here five years ago:

“A lawyer can’t assist two clients bidding for the same contract, because the better job he does for one, the worse his other client fares. A lawyer can’t sue a defendant for every penny that defendant has on behalf of one client when he or she has another client or two that have grievances against that same defendant—if the lawyer is successful with the first client, he’s just ruined his other clients’ chances of recovery. There is some controversy over whether the legal ethics rules automatically apply to a lawyer-agent like Boras, but never mind—whether he is subject to the legal ethics rules or not when serving as an agent, the conflict of interest he is blithely ignoring still applies, still harms his clients, still puts money in his pockets, and still should not be permitted.”

This time, the Zero Sum Conflict is a little different. Boras represents the last two highest priced free-agents, Harper and Houston starter Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel turned down a 5 year, 90 million dollar contract in 2016, so it is assumed that it will cost more than $100,000,000 to sign him now. The problem is that there are very few teams with both the money, the need, and the salary flexibility as Spring Training is starting to commit to 9-figure salary additions. Some of those are the same teams Boras is talking to about Harper, and it is very likely that no team has the resources or desire to sign both. When, as is widely expected, Harper agrees to his mega-contract with Philadelphia nest week, Boras will have directly harmed his other client, Keuchel’s, financial interests. Has Boras received an informed waiver from Keuchel and other clients regarding Zero Sum Conflicts? I very much doubt it, and I also doubt that an informed consent would be truly informed if Boras was the one doing the explaining.

I guarantee, however, that if I were the one explaining the conflict, no waivers would get signed.

Player agents have no ethics codes that are enforced, and the regulation of the field is minimal. Someone, Major League Baseball perhaps, should prohibit agents from representing players with conflicting interests absent true consent after an objective explanation of the potential harm to their prospects by an objective, disinterested party


36 thoughts on “Once Again, Baseball Agent Conflicts Are Hurting Players Who Don’t Understand Why

  1. I feel there may be some level of legitimacy to the roadblock on free agents and not just Kimbrel and Harper. Quite a list anxiously waiting to join the one percent club. The average team salary is $125.5MM with the Red Sox (108 wins) on the top end ($221 MM) and the surprising Rays (90 wins) on the bottom. The Rays payroll is a mere $51MM. How do you get the bottom to pony up?

    Football has penalties for underpaying their cap which I believe is at the 89% rate. But football has a different income structure where a greater equalization is prevalent thanks to the extensive network investments to the CTE gang.

    How can baseball accomplish a similar equalization? That may be a monstrous exercise in futility since it would involve extensive sharing of local cable contracts. This is a riddle I will avoid. Maybe readers and Jack have a pathway?

    • I don’t see the problem. The # of free agents without contracts is very small, though it has been hyped by the players and press. Most of those unsigned are borderline major leaguers or old, or injured. heck, Hanley Ramirez just got a contract, and he’s old AND was released last May. The players who don’t have contracts either have inflated aspirations, or want guaranteed contracts when their age or skills don’t warrant one. Every single free agent gets at least a million dollars a year, and most get more, even second string catchers. The Rays disprove the theory that spending the the max equals a winning team. The various provisions that help small market teams have worked—baseball has had more diversity in play-off teams, with fewer of them, than the other pro sports. The top spending team won the Series, but the second biggest spender (The Nats)didn’t make the play-offs. Yes, there were more 95+ game losing teams last season than ever before, but its a fake stat: when there were 16 teams, at least 25% lost the equivalent of 95 games (in a shorter season) almost every year. People bitch today about the Tigers and White Sox “tanking,” but both had Series-winning teams within the last decade. Before free agency, the Senators, A’s, Browns, Red Sox, Phillies, Braves, Reds, Dodgers and Cubs went multiple decades without a winning season or a hint of one. Meanwhile, the Yankees, Giants, and Cardinals won with routine predictability.

      • Money is a significant advantage and look no further than the Red Sox who could absorb the contract of Sandoval, other dead money and pay a $33MM penalty for signing Moncada. Money allows for foolishness, but also can cover those mistakes.

        And a big market team may not in a WS, but they can be in the hunt year after year. A Royals team can have a few years of success and then get dismantled. Frustrating to baseball fans and certainly team fans. I remember attending a game in KC and talking to one of their fans. He said this is just a scouting trip to see who you will peel off us in a few years. I think he spoke for a lot of fans.

        Machado and Harper are priced right for today’s market just like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols were when they signed. How has that worked out?

        Baseball prediction, Jack?

        • As to Harper and Machado, I agree. But they are both younger than Cabrera and Pujols when they signed their big contracts, and more athletic as well. You know, fan support also deserves rewards. The Sox resources are greatly increased by the fan base, and they are blessed with ownership willing to spend…unlike, say, the Orioles. The Rays and the A’s don’t get fans even when they win—I don’t care to hear them complain about the wealthy teams winning championships. Management wins championships in baseball, not superstars, and not salaries.

          Last year, everyone predicted the same play-off teams as 2017. They said it was obvious. The Yankees, Nationals and Cubs were the consensus winners in their divisions. NOPE! The Nats didn’t even make the play-offs. Three out of six divisions, all with surprise winners. That never happens in the NFL or NBA.

          I expect at least a couple of the group now written off—the Twins, the Rays, the Jays, the Chisox, the Angels, the A’s, the Mariners, the Rockies, the Pads, the Pirates—to force themselves into the mix. I expect at least of the presumed division winners—the Sox/Yankees, Indians, Astros and Dodgers (the NL West and East are up for grabs)—to shock everyone by missing the brass ring—like the Nats.

  2. This isn’t exactly on topic, but as a devoted baseball fan I count my lucky stars every day that as bad as the agent/free agency problems are in the sport, they’re nowhere near as bad as they are in basketball and the NBA, where star players frequently and aggressively collude to assemble superteams and leave small markets in the dust.

    I’d be interested to hear Jack’s take on an ex-agent becoming GM of the Mets, as well.

  3. Jack, you genuinely expect MLB (i.e. the owners) to do something vis-a-vis player agents … to protect the players?

    Boras should encourage Harper to shave that hideous beard if he wants to get more than what’s on offer.

      • Hah. Touche. [Cue almost any scene from “My Cousin Vinny.”]

        Vinny: Ms. Vito, you’re supposed to be some kinda expert in automobiles, is that correct? Is that correct?
        Judge Haller: Would you please answer the counselor’s question?
        Lisa: No, I hate him.
        Vinny: Your Honor, may I ask your permission to treat Ms Veto as a hostile witness?
        Mona Lisa: You think I’m hostile now? Wait till you see me tonight.
        Judge Haller: Do you two know each other?
        Vinny: Yeah, she’s my fiancée.
        Judge Haller: Well, that would certainly explain the hostility.

  4. Apologies for my lateness to this spring fling. I have been doing my best to ignore baseball given the way my team, the Jays, have continued to dismantle without an apparent rebuilding plan in place.

    Should Jack’s suggestion that the Jays will surprise this year and force themselves into the mix come true, I will wear a Red Sox hat everyday (not all day, don’t be silly) through the summer and whatever part of the fall that they are in contention while rooting against my birds.

    Now, in terms of the conflict issues and agents, I do agree that the conflict exists but have question. Would someone like Harper or other multiple millionaires not have personal and/or business lawyers who give independent legal advice to them regarding any MLB contracts and the process to obtain same? This is not intended to get the agents off the hook or a deflection of the issue but a (naive) question about how things work in these situations.

        • And if a batter steps out and re-does the velcro on his fucking batting gloves, make him bat without gloves. And add a strike to the count. Jerks.

          • And if a batter step out to adjust his helmet, make him bat without a helmet. And get rid of those elbow pads and get guys off the plate.

            • I do agree with more restrictions on batters’ antics during their turns at bat. This is a HITTER talking: Step up there, take your swing (or the other guy’s pitch), and be in the box, ready for the next pitch, before the catcher’s throw makes it back to the mound.

        • >>Pitchers adjust and hitters adjust to change.

          I believe that………and yet hitters still have not adjusted to the shift. Think of how much the overall batting average would go up in MLB if hitters would hit to the opposite field.

          • It really annoys me to hear talk of making rules regarding shifts. If the offense can’t (or won’t) find a way to beat the defense, then too bad. (This is a HITTER talking.) It’s one thing to, say, adjust the definition of the strike zone, to tweak the offense-defense balance of effectiveness. That directly impacts – up front, before any other defense applies – the “duel” between pitcher and batter. But only between those two.

            But, to jerk around whole infields and outfields (and teams, and leagues, and fans) with shift rules – just to enable all hitters to have a better chance of beating the defense – SUCKS. No, seriously and more precisely: it turns the game into a sport (and a business) that’s less concerned with enabling the full talent and skills of individual players (and teams) on the field than with some unquantifiable, front-office-target, “entertainment value.”

      • I don’t like change… so my emotions are leading on this comment.

        I think (outside MLB especially) that the tension between batter and hitter make up a good portion of the viewing enjoyment. MLB may have taken this too far, granted, but using these tactics to ‘get into the other guy’s head’ have always been part of the game.

        Calling your shot, like the Babe did, was one such (very risky) tactic. One that plays very well in several movies (Hollywood rarely understands baseball enough to capture the essence of play) like ‘Major League’ or ‘Field of Dreams’ (used in a funny way)

      • For the latter, against the former. Don’t you see how a pitch clock deprives the game of the element of suspense? Are we all so f-ing digitized now, that we have no patience for anything but outcomes, and damn the pathway to them?

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