Because Scott Boras, the agent who represents Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa, the team’s three top minor-league prospects and at one point nine players on the big club, would have advised his clients to either sign elsewhere or return to college and sign with another club the following year.
Boras, like David Falk in the NBA before him and Drew Rosenhaus in the NFL after him, is a power broker. And if he felt Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was going to gamble against medical advice and work Strasburg until his arm fell off, Rizzo would have had scraps for a roster, and Washington would not have had this surreal season.
The truth: Rizzo placing a player’s health concerns over a series-or-bust, win-now mentality won over Boras early on in their relationship, and it’s the primary reason the Nationals have the players they do now.
“The good thing about Rizzo, when I had Strasburg — and you know he was a 20-year-old draftee, a year early — I said, ‘Look, you want to draft these players? Great, but you know what, I’m not on board,” Boras said he told Rizzo. “We won’t sign and I’ll send them back to college. I want to make sure we have an organization that will put the health of these players first.”
Boras and Rizzo first developed their relationship when Rizzo was the Arizona Diamondbacks’ director of scouting from 2000 to 2006. “Mike was a developmental guy,” Boras said. “I got to know Mike from there. Mike was like me, a former player. You played pro ball, you understand. And Mike understands the benefit, long-term, of making sure medical health, a player’s health, and the development of a player is appropriately done. He gets that.
“Once I knew that, boom, I started putting players into his system that I knew would benefit the player, benefit the team. And the reality of it is, we had this mutuality. Sure enough, in the Strasburg case, he sat down, listened to the doctors.”
Boras spoke in a 25-minute phone interview on Thursday from his offices in Newport Beach, Calif. He also appeared on my talk show on WJFK (106.7 FM) and a national ESPN radio show Thursday with an obvious agenda: to rebut those who keep insisting the Nationals should go for broke this postseason and pitch Strasburg rather than shut him down sometime next month.
See, before Boras became baseball’s most prominent agent, he played in the minor leagues. He also studied pharmacology and medicine for eight years, earning a degree at the University of the Pacific. And after all the money he’s made his clients and himself, one player’s demise in baseball still gnaws at him: Steve Avery – who went from phenom on one of the greatest rotations in the game in Atlanta to rubber-armed by 25 and out of baseball by 29. The Braves’ pitching coach at the time, Leo Mazzone, has been among the more vocal critics of the Nationals’ decision on Strasburg, calling it “pathetic.”
“This is the only industry I know where people are saying, ‘Excuse me, I want to risk a benefit of years of performance, years of productivity, for a one- or two-month benefit,” Boras said. “What industry would someone say that? If you’re asking me, you’re taking severe risks if you violate the protocol.”
Boras bristles that the Strasburg issue has come to a head when neither Rizzo nor the agent has deviated from the plan hatched before the season began, a plan that included signing Edwin Jackson, another Boras client, to bolster the Nats’ rotation while helping ease the transition to not having Strasburg at the end of the season.
“How about everyone was given notice by Rizzo that this was going to be what the format was,” Boras said. “That he is going to, hopefully, pitch the Nationals into [pennant-winning] position. Rizzo and I put this team together. I got eight or nine guys on the team.”
Boras said he actually drove to Nationals principal owner Ted Lerner’s house to plead with him for more money for Jackson for the express reason that Jackson would gobble up the innings that Strasburg would miss if they followed the doctors’ advice.
“I went to the owner and said ‘You better start Edwin Jackson, you better do this because you are going to need these innings because we have this plan for Stephen Strasburg,’” Boras said. “And you know what? Ted did it.”
Boras also made clear that communicating to Strasburg the opinion of Lewis Yocum, who performed the surgery, and other top medical minds, including James Andrews, the orthopedic surgeon who’s operated on hundreds of elite athletes, wasn’t easy.
“You got to remember that this is not Stephen’s decision,” he said. “Stephen wants to pitch. But once you know this man saved your career, you listen to his protocol.”
Another harsh truth: if Rizzo and the Nats didn’t follow this plan, they opened themselves up to serious financial liability and, worse, the real possibility Boras would stop sending the players he represents the Nationals’ way anymore.
“I told Rizzo, ‘I’ll be honest with you, you got a guy who is a No. 1 pitcher. There are only a few of them in the game. He’s worth $30 million dollars a year,” Boras said. “You have four years that cost you $120 million dollars. Because of the reserve system, you only have to pay $40 million dollars. So you have an $80 million dollar decision of profit — in an asset that you have under your control. You better look at it that way. You know what else you better look at? With your insurance coverage, if you go against medical recommendations, are you liable for negligence as an organization?”
Asked if that was a threat of legal consequence, Boras replied, “The fact of the matter is, if you are forcing your player to pitch and disregarding medical doctors, are you going to be able to live with that legally and ethically?”
Boom. Case closed on the Strasburg dilemma.