I had the opportunity to pose a question to our august panel on Friday, and below is the transcript of the discussion that followed.
Question: Player agents negotiate terms for their clients and are largely responsible for setting the free agent market price for players. There has been some murmuring on the internet about these men wielding too much power (see ESPN's Bill Simmons' recent article on Manny Ramirez). Do you think agents have too much sway over where players play year to year? If yes, what course of action would you suggest for MLB to rein these men in?
Trey (Cardinal Virtue): I think this is a really thought provoking question. My feeling is that yes, the agents in MLB do have too much power. One example of this is "agent nepotism" were less prominent players that are with an agent follow a big-name signing to the same team. One high profile example of this is how Pettite always followed Clemens to the same team (though they are also good friends besides being with the same agent). I'm not sure MLB can do much about this situation unfortunately, because the players union holds so much sway when it comes to free agency. Certainly, the agent system has been very good for most of the union's players, so they likely want to see it stay in it's current form. The best way for agent's to hold less sway is for induvidual teams to be more responsilbe with their investments. I believe we are starting to see some signs of this with more and more teams investing in young talent and staying away from spending big bucks on free agency or players like Manny who try and throw their weight around. Of course, we might quickly see a reversal of this trend with the best free agent crop in several years coming up this offseason.
Deaner (Cardinal Nation Globe): Yes. I definitely think these agents (a.k.a. Scott Boras) have way too much sway. It's seems like when their players come up for free agency only a select group of larger market clubs even have a chance at aquiring them. The most unforunate thing, however, is how these agents affect the draft. Many small-market teams will often step away from a Boras client, even if he is the best available player, out of fear that they won't be able to sign him. Pittsburgh did pick a Boras guy, Pedro Alvarez, with their number one pick in this past draft and they had a TON of problems with the signing.
Don (The Redbird Blog): Do agents have influence? Sure. Too much influence? Maybe in the case of younger, unsophisticated players who aren't comfortable with contracts and finances. Ultimately, however, it's the player who makes all the choices. If he doesn't like the direction his
agent is suggesting, he can simply say no. Or change agents. Happens all of the time.
Ryan (Cardinal Diaspora): There's plenty of culpability to go around, but in the end, it's the owners who have to sign the checks. Maybe something should be done to protect owners from themselves, like a hat, er, maybe a cap...a cap on...salaries.
Me: I agree that owners are to blame for the contract silliness. Lohse couldn't get $41M for four years following the best season of his career if (a) an owner wasn't willing to pay that, and (b) an owner wasn't afraid some other knucklehead would offer him more cash, and his services would be lost.
And even though some of the economic disparity has gone away in MLB (witness Meche's $40M plus from the KC Royals two years ago), the fact is exorbitant contract demands for Class "A" free agents limit their availability to only the teams with the most cash. Since agents control how much cash these players will ask for (again, mostly because some bozo's gonna pay it, but also because they get a cut of the revenue), they tacitly decide who goes where and plays for whom. How is it good for the overall health of the game to have the same teams in the playoffs year after year after year, and the rest of the league goes into the season with no realistic chance of advancing past Fan Appreciation Weekend?
Dan (Redbirds Fun): Another thing not helping the situation is an agent like Scott Boras who wants the highest possible contract for his clients.
Me: THAT GUY's (ed note: clearly I hadn't seen Deaner's email at this point) business practices are the primary driver for my question. Scott Boras had a direct influence on how this year's playoffs has gone, if you buy into the argument he was the driving force behind Manny Ramirez's petulance in Boston the first half of this season (and I think the argument there has some merit).
Owners get hammered for perceptions of collusion against players, fair market value, etc. Why not extend that line of thinking to agents?
Ryan: Except that if you're a player, you want an agent to serve you 100% and getting maximum value is typically right at the top of the list. That's why players choose Boras for their representation...and Boras chooses who he represents.
As yucky as they can be, I just can't blame the agents. They merely filling a need created by the process itself.
What about owners who opt for profit taking over competition? The National League has been notorious for that in recent years. (The only reason that's really changing is the paradigm shift of more and more owners seeing the value (economic and on the field) of player development/advanced evaluation). In part, teams willing to settle for 81 wins and in-the-black consistency have driven higher priced players to teams that shell out the dough. Teams competing with the Yankees and Red Sox have found longer-term value by making expensive moves and taking a temporary hit on their profit margins with the payoff being more competitive teams that build a fan base and longer term profit margins.
Don: I agree with Ryan. Ultimately the owners and the Players Association have created the system in which the agents work. At any time they can collectively bargain to restrict agent authority. The players are unlikely to agree to such restrictions unless the owners will make it worth their while (e.g., sweeter pension guarantees, reduced vesting periods, etc.)
Dan (C70 at the bat): I do think that the owners and GMs wind up giving the agents more power than they should have. In most years, I've blamed management for not standing up to Boras and his ilk and saying, "No, we're going elsewhere." The problem is, it takes all the owners doing that to make a difference and, eliminating collusion, that's just not going to happen because there's always an owner who thinks Player X is just that last piece they need.....
However, if the whole Boras/Manny situation is true, there really should be some limits or restrictions placed on the agents. I don't have as much trouble with them getting all they can get for their client, but when you pull a move like that just to fatten your commission, you've gone over the line.
Tom (CardinalsGM): I think it is TOO easy to say they have too much power. Let's not forget this is a business and this is a job for these guys They are doing what is right for their clients. Just because an owner has more money than another is not the fault of the agent. To get as much money as one can for working their job is the American Way. Therefore, no they are not too powerful. Just doing a job.
[UPDATE 10/27 0945: Do to a unintentional error, Nick wasn't included on the original email string. Here are his comments.]
Nick (Pitchers Hit Eighth): I think MLB has to do two things to try and curb increasing agent power in the game.
The players union needs to be brought down a notch or two, constantly filing grievances, claiming collusion, etc. This will help to even the playing field again between owners and players.
Second, the league needs to make thorough investigations into some practices by agents. Rather than it just being rumored and discussed as a *nudge, nudge, wink wink* thing - MLB needs to take an active interest in things like allegations of impropriety in the Manny Ramirez situation. If it's believed that Boras orchestrated Manny's moping and general bad attitude in Boston as a way to get Manny on the open market this off-season, something needs to be done. Suspension, revoke his free agency, ban Boras from MLB...something.
When the players and agents have all the control and can force the hand of a Boston team where they seemingly very literally have no choice but to trade one of the best hitters in the game, something is broken.
So what can we pull from the discussion? It seems most of the participants agree the process of signing free agents is broken. Most UCB-ers place the blame on the owners for being willing to pay exorbitant prices for a player's services. In their mind, the agent is simply being a good advocate for his client, driving the bidding up for their client's services to realize the maximum return for his talents.
In that vein, I agree with the majority - owners have created this situation. As was said above, there is very little chance the owners will be able to rein in agents (and by extension, the players) to bring the salary discussions down to a more manageable level without substantive and significant concessions to the players association. MLB players at the elite end of the spectrum have gotten rich under the current arrangement; why would they voluntarily restrict their access to untold fortune? A salary cap would restrict the number of big contracts a team could handle, but since that would restrict access to the pie, it's unlikely the players association would go for it.
One of the more interesting items that came up in the discussion was that regarding draftees. The Pittsburgh/Alvarez experience is not unique when it comes to agents driving a hard bargain for a first or second round draft pick. If memory serves, J.D. Drew held out for a full year because the Phillies wouldn't pay the $10 Million he and Scott Boras asked for, re-entering the draft and being taken by the Cardinals. Some teams may very well be scared off drafting a particular player based on who his agent is. There is also the problem of where the player falls in the draft order, and whether the team will only offer as a signing bonus what MLB recommends, or go beyond that if needed, but that's a topic for a later discussion.
I recommend reading the Bill Simmons article on Manny Ramirez, if you can stomach the Red Sox lament that's imbedded in his writing. The issue I have with what he described, and what led me to ask this question, is Manny's alleged tanking of the season while playing for the Red Sox. Ramirez tore the cover off the ball in the NL, but really didn't do that in Boston in 2008. Why the stark discrepancy? The cast of characters hadn't really changed that much in Boston, so I doubt it was locker room issues; besides, by all accounts, Manny's unconscious when it comes to locker room intrigue. There had to be some external driver. Perhaps Scott Boras is too convenient a target - he's universally reviled (unless, of course, he's working for you), so it's easy to turn venom against him.
My issue here is the integrity of the game. If Manny turned the hit machine off on the advice of his agent, in order to opt out of his contract in favor of a big free agent payday this off season, his actions directly affected the intregity of the game. You're supposed to play hard all the time. Not only would his 'tanking' have affected his statistics, but it directly affected the seasons of two teams - Boston (how much more dangerous is that team with Manny in the lineup, especially with Ortiz struggling as bad as he did and Lowell hurt in the ALCS), and the Dodgers (no way they make the playoffs without Manny). It also indirectly affected the seasons of at least 3 other teams - Tampa (do they win the East, much less the ALCS, if Manny's in Boston playing like he's capable?), the Chicago Cubs (they face Arizona in the playoffs instead of the Dodgers, the whole NL playoff result is different), and Philadelphia (who knows how well they do if they have to open the NLCS in Chicago vice having home field against LA).
If nothing else, MLB should look into the allegations. What should they do if they find proof? Manny should be fined, and Boras should be censured (unable to represent clients for a year? A fine of some amount? Something). But if this goes uninvestigated, more players will see this as a model for getting out of a contract in search of a more lucrative payday - and they won't all be Scott Boras clients.