Boras's Next Assault on Draft Might Come From Far East
Friday, July 3, 2009
The Major League Rules is a sprawling, dense, little-known, 254-page document, periodically updated, that governs the business side of baseball. Among other things, it lays out, in painstaking legalese, the process and guidelines for the sport's annual draft, and in recent years, these sections have provided a road map for a certain notorious agent bent on circumventing the draft itself.
In 1996, agent Scott Boras exploited a loophole to help gain free agency for four draftees who did not receive contract offers from the teams that selected them within 15 days of the draft, as required. A year later, he unsuccessfully attempted to make Philadelphia Phillies draftee J.D. Drew a free agent by taking him to the independent Northern League and thus changing his official status from "amateur" to "professional."
This summer, Boras has another high-profile client, San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg, for whom he would love nothing more than to blow apart baseball's draft system, allowing Strasburg to be compensated in line with his talent -- his asking price is believed to be around $50 million -- as opposed to within the parameters of the current system, in which no player has ever received more than $10.5 million.
Even before talks began with the Washington Nationals, who made Strasburg the first overall pick June 9, Boras was dropping hints privately that he is preparing to explore a new frontier in his ongoing draft-busting crusade: Japan.
Such a ploy, were Boras to go in that direction, could involve a variety of issues, from the complex relationship between Major League Baseball and Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, the residency requirements of both countries and, of course, the Major League Rules.
"If a [contract agreement] does not happen," Boras said during a conference call with reporters following the draft, "obviously you then look to all the available resources that one would have to evaluate what the next step is, whether it's to re-enter the draft, or alternative choices."
On the surface, baseball's rules are simple: If a player doesn't sign by Aug. 17 with the team that drafts him -- no matter what "alternative" he chooses -- he goes back into the draft the following year and the team gets a roughly equivalent compensation pick.
"Our view is simple: Until [Strasburg] signs a professional contract within our system, he is eligible for our draft and remains subject to our draft," said Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president for labor relations. "He can play wherever he wants. But if he doesn't sign with Washington, he goes back into the draft, and if he doesn't sign with that team [in 2010], he goes back in again."
In reality, though, it is not that simple.
According to Major League Rule 4(a), draft eligibility is limited to players who are "resident[s] of the United States or Canada and who [have] not previously contracted with a Major League or minor league club." Under Rule 3, which governs contracts, a player is considered a resident of the United States if he "enrolls in a United States high school or college or establishes a legal residence in the U.S. on the date of the player's contract or within one year prior to that date."
However, there is enough gray area within the issue of "residency" -- a notion Boras first explored in Drew's case in 1997, threatening at one point to take him to Costa Rica to establish residency -- that baseball has seen fit to publish a handbook, distributed to scouting directors and other executives before each year's draft, that clarifies what residency means.
It is determined by "looking at factors such as length of stay at the current address, where the player intends to live long-term, where he has lived previously, where he obtained his passport and his place of birth," Manfred said. "These factors are intended to weed out . . . shams."