BOSTON (CBS) — Scott Boras never has been one to compromise, a trait that has made him the most powerful agent in the history of Major League Baseball. Boras is smart. Boras is shrewd. No negotiator better understands the value of leverage.
So here’s the problem for Boras now: He doesn’t have any.
And as a result, he’s resorting to what amount to courtroom antics.
The official start of the 2015 MLB season is now precisely 17 days away, and in this story more than any other, the days matter. Perhaps the most interesting baseball story of the spring thus far concerns Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, generally regarded by most every baseball expert to be the best prospect in the game at the moment. Cubs president Theo Epstein (remember him?) selected Bryant with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, and Bryant has since rocketed through the Cubs’ minor league system as if he were the game’s next Mike Trout.
Last year, in combined time at Double-A and Triple-A, Bryant batted .325 with 43 home runs, 110 RBIs, 118 runs scored, a 1.098 OPS and 15 stolen bases. He has continued that assault this spring, during which he has batted .435 with six homers, eight extra-base hits and a 1.804 OPS in 26 plate appearances covering nine games.
Plain and simple, the 23-year-old Bryant is a stud.
So what’s the problem? Largely because Bryant is represented by Boras, the Cubs intend to start Bryant in the minors this year, at least for a couple of weeks. (We’ll get to the particulars in a moment.) By doing so, the Cubs will essentially ensure that Bryant will put off free agency for a year and remain with organization through 2021 instead of 2020, no small thing given that Bryant will then be smack dab in the middle of his athletic prime.
So how did Boras combat this earlier this week?
“You are damaging the ethics and brand of Major League Baseball,” Boras told USA Today. “Kris Bryant has extraordinary skills. Kris Bryant is a superstar. He has distinguished himself from all players at every level he’s played. … This isn’t a system choice. This isn’t a mandate. This is a flat ownership decision. Do they really want to win here?”
You are damaging the ethics and brand of Major League Baseball. Is Boras serious with this garbage? During his time as baseball’s preeminent power broker, Boras has built a reputation as an unyielding negotiator, which is hardly a criticism. As he might say, he’s representing millionaires against billionaires. Boras has most often been about getting his client every last dollar, about utilizing baseball’s system to his advantage, and everybody in and around the game knows it.
Generally speaking – and there are always exceptions – Boras clients almost always go to free agency when they first have the chance. And then they usually go to the highest bidder. Epstein and the Cubs know this. By holding Bryant out of the lineup for two weeks now, when he’s 23, they will get an additional season out of Bryant in 2021, when he’s 29 years old.
Don’t you see? The Cubs are doing exactly what Boras usually does, using the system to their advantage.
Let’s back up here for a moment. This season, beginning on April 5, baseball’s official season will last 183 days. In order to qualify for a full year of service time, a major league player must accrue 172 days on the active roster or disabled list. By keeping Bryant off the roster through April 16 – a total of 12 days – the Cubs can ensure that Bryant will fall just short of a full year of service, leaving him just under the required 172 days.
Under major league rule, as we all know, a player must accrue six full years of service to be eligible for free agency. By doing what they’re doing, the Cubs are essentially keeping Bryant under their control through 2021 instead of 2020. Boras has positively no recourse to stop this, which is why he’s throwing around words like “ethics” and “brand” while questioning the Cubs’ desire to win.
Actually, Scott, the Cubs do want to win – for as long as possible. That’s why they’re willing to sacrifice 12 days now for another 183 later. A financial adviser would deem that an excellent rate of return.
Here’s another thing: In his criticism of the Cubs, Boras specifically identified “ownership,” rather than Epstein, which is hardly an accident. The two generally have shared a good and productive working relationship. As any Red Sox follower will tell you, ownership came between Boras and Epstein during the failed Mark Teixeira negotiations in the winter of 2008-09, and Boras knows that Epstein will be a powerful executive in the game for years (decades?) to come.
The point? Boras isn’t about to start some petty spat with Theo about “ethics” and “brand” because he respects (and needs) him too much. They have a future of sitting across the table from one another. So he tries to bait Theo’s boss instead. (Epstein strongly came out yesterday and ensured that this had nothing to do with ownership.)
Undoubtedly, Cubs fans are probably split on this. Chicago has been rebuilding its baseball operation for years under Epstein, and the Cubs dropped a huge chunk of change on Jon Lester over the winter to officially signal the start of their next phase in development. Having Bryant with the club from the start would make some sense. But 12 days on the baseball calendar – particularly in April – hardly qualify as critical, and so Epstein is doing in Chicago what he has done from the beginning: thinking for the long term.
Here in Boston, the Red Sox have had their share of run-ins with Boras, who has represented, among others, Teixeira, J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jacoby Ellsbury. In the case of Ellsbury, the Red Sox knew there was little chance of signing him during his time with the club, prior to Ellsbury’s eligibility for free agency in 2013. That is simply Boras’ way of doing business. In Bryant, Epstein now has, perhaps, a generational talent who could command more than double what Ellsbury did on the open market, and so he is drawing a line in the sand as clearly as Boras ever did.
Boras doesn’t like it.
But if you’re going to live by the sword, you can’t complain when you die by it.