The Boras Factor
Super agent's grip on June draft under fire from MLB
Posted: Wednesday June 6, 2007 3:33PM; Updated: Wednesday June 6, 2007 7:14PM
Scott Boras has a tremendous stable of young amateur players ready for baseball's 2007 draft, maybe the best group he's had since Jim Abbott, Andy Benes and Steve Avery 19 years ago, maybe even better.
Besides all that talent, Boras has the best rhetoric. The famous super-agent -- or "advisor," the official role he assumes when working with amateurs -- lists a few prospects from his current batch who are "decade players," meaning talents who come along once every 10 years. The man who single-handedly changed the face of baseball's amateur selection process is more than ready to capitalize on this year's draft, which begins Thursday in Orlando, Fla.
Standing in his way will be his decidedly less-famous nemesis, Frank Coonelly, a man who goes by the title of MLB senior VP and general counsel for labor. Coonelly, the league's behind-the-scenes brains for the draft, has countered Boras' aggressive negotiating tactics with a successful "slotting" system, which assigns suggested dollar values for picks. MLB also has introduced some dramatic rules changes designed to drive down signing bonuses that skyrocketed through the 1990s but have leveled off in recent years.
Coonelly and his colleagues at MLB contend that the real reason why Boras and other agents can procure such large bonuses for their college and high school clients isn't always related to the players' talent but rather to the negotiating prowess of the agents, which top MLB officials claim has led to several bad deals for ballclubs. "Meeting exorbitant demands of 18- and 21-year-olds is a risky business," Coonelly says. "Many clubs have been burned by buying into the idea of the 'special' player or the 'player of the decade.'"
Coonelly has data indicating that a good percentage of top picks, regardless of who's advising them, don't make it, and he has effectively shared that information with club executives to help keep bonuses down in recent years. Coonelly provided to SI a list of 18 Boras-only clients who received bonuses between $1 million and $3 million from 1998 to 2003, above the "slot" figure that MLB strongly recommends to teams, and haven't yet returned much on the investment. "There isn't a correlation between overpaying and productivity," Coonelly says. "There is a fairly long track record of clients Scott represented who signed 'above slot' who haven't panned out."
Boras counters that Coonelly's list includes six players who made the majors and omits several from those years who have succeeded, such as Prince Fielder, Jeff Weaver, Gerald Laird and Brad Wilkerson. And Boras points out that many of those players, who he says were not sold as premium players, got injured. And Boras, famous for negotiating Alex Rodriguez's $252 million free-agent contract, Barry Zito's $126 million payday and several other groundbreaking big-league deals, has his own powerful data. While only about half the players from the overall list of 189 picks in the $1-million-to-$3-million bonus range made it to the majors, that list includes bargain stars such as Carl Crawford ($1.24 million signing bonus), Adrian Gonzalez ($3 million), Chase Utley ($1.78 million), Fielder ($2.37 million), Jeff Francoeur ($2.2 million), Nick Swisher ($1.77 million), plus the makings of a superb pitching staff: C.C. Sabathia ($1.3 million), Brad Lidge ($1.05 million), Ben Sheets ($2.45 million), Brett Myers ($2.05 million), Zito ($1.59 million), Chris Young ($1.65 million), Noah Lowry ($1.17 million), Scott Kazmir ($2.15 million) and Matt Cain ($1.37 million).
Boras also points out that among the truly special players from that 1998-03 period (the ones receiving $3 million bonuses), 21 of 22 have reached the big leagues. As for his own top amateur prospects, Boras says that eight of the nine who have received $4 million bonuses or higher since 1998 already have made it to the majors (including Rangers first baseman Mark Teixeira), and the ninth is righthander Luke Hochevar, the No. 1 overall pick last year, who's already at Double-A and knocking on the big-league door for the Royals. "When you're talking about the high-bonus players, they've been 100 percent successful since 1998," Boras says.
But Coonelly, who has had several knock-down, drag-out battles with Boras in major-league arbitration hearings, cites stats suggesting that there's no reason to pay more than the "slot" value that MLB assigns, which starts between $3 million and $4 million for the No. 1 pick and goes down to just below $1 million for the 30th pick of the first round, then down to $100,000 by the end of the fifth round. According to MLB's figures, 40 percent of players who receive 5 percent or more "above slot" from the first three rounds make it to the majors, while a comparable 38 percent who receive "slot money" or below make it to the big leagues.
Boras counters by saying that these slots are "artificial" and not based on a player's true ability or value and that baseball decision makers are putting themselves in peril by adhering to these guidelines. "He's directing them to pass on better players, and thus risking their jobs," Boras says. He offers as example Texas' passing on Jered Weaver and his $5 million request in 2003 and choosing Thomas Diamond for $2 million instead. Weaver got $4 million from Anaheim, which picked after Texas, then won his first nine starts in 2006 and helped Anaheim win the division.
According to Boras, MLB's figures are diluted by including more than the first round, where he says 40 percent of the bonus money goes and where he says most of the premium amateur talent is selected. What's more, Boras points to an impressively long list of players whom he has represented and who received large bonuses and proved their value, including A-Rod, Jason Varitek, Kevin Brown, Alex Fernandez, Charles Johnson, Kurt Stillwell, Tim Belcher, Darren Dreifort, Abbott and Avery. "Any time I had a rough fight with a player, that player proved to be a longstanding major leaguer of value," Boras says.
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