The fever pitch around free agent signings this time of year will reach its peak once some of the top flight free agents sign this off-season. Bryce Harper leads the pack, but Manny Machado is not far behind on the prestige scale. Some team will pay a pretty penny, usually a team flush with cash, or a team that is recognizing that their window is now.
The business of sports agency grew with the economic explosion of the game. But the dollar and cents increase beyond what ownership was starting to rake in with TV rights, licensing, and what they brought in on game days, collided with labor disputes (mostly strikes and lockouts) leveraged by players to improve the size of their piece of the pie. This created a boost in value of a player needing capable representation to secure the best deals his agent could negotiate.
The top echelon of talent from the draft will obtain the strongest representation. A small number of agents control a large percentage of the player pool, especially when factoring in who are the top earners. The rich get richer in this structure as agents with a deep client bench who capitalize on baseball’s transparency on player salaries, lead to a powerful combination. They always know who they are comparing their client to. Scott Boras’ name comes up often when looking at the most contentious negotiations between super talent and organization, but he also has been working with big data way before it was fashionable. Digging for any data point to justify his client’s price tag.
I learned firsthand about the style and approach of Scott Boras in my first meeting with him. He was prepared with data, charts, and graphs, on how I was worth more than most draft picks since I was trading strong job opportunities to play in the minors. Compelling. He took nearly a half a day to break it down with shoe-banging stories of his previous work to pry value out of every negotiation. He had the top people, which certainly makes you feel like you are in elite company. He knew the ropes, he had seen the complete picture of what it took to be the best. Whoever went with Boras would get that level of preparation, intensity, and perseverance. I knew he may break a few things along the way, but you would find every dollar in your career, even the pennies in the sofa.
I chose a different path by going with Arn Tellem. No fancy dinner to recruit me. He took me to Lee’s Hoagie House for lunch (for non-Philadelphians, think of it like a local, down home, Subway.). Low key, down to earth, and highly respected. Fortunately, I had great choices.
Once you have an agent, from the recruiting that quietly begins around the draft, you may believe you will be with this one agent for your entire career. I stayed with Tellem (now Wasserman Media Group) for my entire career, so I believe I chose well, but there is a predatory underbelly that keeps any player in a constant recruiting orbit. It could be a friend on the team that genuinely wants to bring you into his family, or a surrogate of another agent that wants to pry you away. Doubt swirls around in your head when it comes to the question of whether you signed your best deal or if your agent did not quite get the most they could have gotten for you. How a player perceives the deal he signed will often determine their happiness with their representation. Even retroactively.
Yet so much of an agent’s work is emphasizing the importance of patience. When you are in a profession where injury is a constant threat, a player does not want to stall when millions are on the table, even if you could get more. Even in youth, you get a sense of how set for life you can be when you get one big contract. So when you have been waiting a long time to sign, you will start to ask about the difference between $112 million and $116 million in the long-run. A good agent will keep you calm, especially an agent that has many other clients who may be compared to your salary when the smoke clears.
This comparison is key in baseball to assess value. Your service time, performance, age, etc. will place you into a certain slot and players with similar stats will expect to be paid in the range of like-performers. So there is incentive for any agent to get you more money, not just for commission, but to prop up the scale of the system by which ALL of their clients will be measured.
In the end, a player hires his agent. Kris Bryant underscored this point when he was sent down to Triple-A in 2015 as questions swirled around his response to being sent out after a tremendous spring training. A player has the final say, but you have an agent for a reason and an agent’s job is to get you maximum value, the player has to fill in the other key aspects of what matters to him to make a decision of where and when to sign.
Hometown discounts are often floated around as a sign of loyalty. Andrew McCutchen and Pittsburgh seemed to be a long-term marriage until it wasn’t. A player’s career is short and top earning years are even shorter, so unless you are granted guaranteed time on your deal, the priority often shifts to making the most money where you can capitalize on the best opportunity you can find.
Major League teams have to know who they are negotiating with at all times. Someone like a Boras often sets the marketplace and his deals will not be done quickly. Wait. Wait. Wait some more. Boras client, JD Drew played in an independent league just to keep waiting and to not sign with Philadelphia. Until the right deal came along.
Agents know as well as anyone in the industry that a player’s career is short, even for the most talented players in the game. The natural aging process will already compromise your productivity once you reach a certain age. Then there are the unforeseen issues of injuries and personal strife, timing and developmental stressors. Players underachieve, overachieve or just plain achieve, all come with a certain price tag to assign to that player.
At this time of year when the market is about to explode, deals will be made, money thrown around. Players will turn down ridiculous amounts of money to just wait for the next offer, or to just bet on themselves. While a player waits, someone else will sign on the dotted line, eventually. He will then create a standard, especially when that player is your match in production and age, service, and position. Then you will be compared to them, for better or for worse.
Your agent’s job is to make it for better. Your team may respectively disagree.