The risks, rewards of cozying up
Monday, August 16, 2010
Just how deeply is agent Scott Boras now embedded in the fabric of the Nationals, especially if as is expected, his client Bryce Harper signs with Washington by midnight on Monday night?
And does his wide-ranging direct influence which extends from the top of the organization to the bottom - from owner Ted Lerner through General Manager Mike Rizzo to Manager Jim Riggleman to key Nats like Stephen Strasburg, Pudge Rodriguez and top prospect Danny Espinosa - bode well or ill for the Nats' future?
In the last two years, largely through happenstance, Boras and the Nats have been thrown together constantly - starting with the Nats' $180 million bid for free agent Mark Teixeira, which drove up the market for Boras's client by at least $20 million.
Since then, Boras's future has become linked to the Nats to a surprising degree. As some of his older clients, like Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, have been tarnished by their use of performance-enhancing drugs, Boras's reputation took a hit along with theirs. Plenty in baseball, who demonize Boras because his fierce advocacy has helped drive up salaries, were glad to see it.
Strasburg and Harper, 17, a pair of prospects so incendiary that they were both Sports Illustrated cover boys long before they played a minor league game, now represent the cream of Boras's next generation of players. As he proudly points out, Sports Business Journal recently ranked them No. 1 and No. 5 among all baseball players under 25 in terms of marketing potential.
So, both for his clients' legitimate interests, as well as his own, Boras prefers that Nationals Park become a flattering and profitable stage on which for them to perform. But Boras likes to get his fingers as deep into any pie as he can. It's his job. And that's what's happening with the Nats, especially if a Harper deal gets done.
The tense negotiations involving Teixeira, Strasburg and Harper would bond, or make mortal enemies, of any team and agent. With the Nats and Boras, however, the threads are much more closely woven than that. For example, Riggleman was Boras's minor league roommate once when they were both with the St. Louis Cardinals and Boras speaks highly of his managing skill.
"In spring training, Jim would let me borrow his car to go to church on Sunday," says Boras.
Boras, who despised former Nats general manager Jim Bowden, lobbied for Rizzo to replace him in the job, even raising the possibility, according to sources, that Strasburg would not sign with the Nats as long as Bowden was in charge of his minor league development.
Now that Rizzo is in charge, the pair have worked successfully on multiple deals and Boras praises him freely. Last winter, when Pudge Rodriguez wasn't offered more than a one-year contract by any team, the Nats signed him for $7 million for two years, a decision that has worked out well all around and tightened bonds.
With a future Hall of Famer (Rodriguez), a young star (Strasburg) and a bench player (Alberto Gonzalez) in the Nats' clubhouse, Boras has a clear sense of how the internal chemistry of the team works - usually a key element in encouraging other free agents to join an organization. "They've got a great clubhouse now," says Boras. That would be "now," as in post-Bowden.
Perhaps most important, Boras and Lerner have the kind of relationship that Boras prefers - a direct one where the agent speaks straight to the man with the money, working around more experienced baseball intermediaries.
"Scott has talked to him quite a bit," says one member of the Nats' front office. Lerner is a tough negotiator but Boras always reminds the billionaire that, while he knows his own business inside out, he has many things to learn about baseball. Of course, Boras is always delighted to further "Mr. Lerner's" education.
Some teams and ownerships are spoken of derisively by Boras, but he almost always has praise for Rizzo, Lerner and the Nats - everyone except team president Stan Kasten, one of his old antagonists, whom he almost never mentions. If, eventually, Kasten leaves the Nats, Boras's influence may increase.
All told, strange bedfellows. But, at times, they pull the same end of the rope. "Washington is an absolutely great city for baseball. It's an exciting market, an exciting venue," says Boras, who then goes on at lengths that might embarrass a D.C. mayor.
Boras's interests or tentacles extend to a welter of Nats subjects. And the two sides' interests can't always coincide. For example, should the Nats re-sign Adam Dunn? The grapevine says Boras thinks the Nats would be better off with good-fielding free agent first baseman Carlos Pena of Tampa Bay even though he is hitting .212, is two years older than Dunn and has already shown a pattern of statistical decline. If Dunn isn't re-signed, Pena would be perhaps the most logical replacement. His agent? Boras.
Few men have Boras's power to impact a sport. No one can measure exactly how much Boras's good relations with the high-spending Yanks have helped the Bombers. But they wouldn't be world championships without Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.
No one can quantify how much free agents Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers - all Boras clients - helped improve the Tigers from buffoons to a World Series team. But it was transformational. And each followed the other.
On the other hand, no one can say how much the hostility of teams like the Orioles, White Sox and Phillies toward Boras held back their progress.
But odd things happen. The White Sox are the only team with a policy of not dealing with Boras. Yet, last month, they obtained pitcher Edwin Jackson, a Boras client who wanted to leave Arizona, just before the trade deadline. Many assumed Jackson would then be part of a deal for Dunn. But nothing happened. Except the White Sox ended up with egg on their face.
Will the Harper deal get done? Almost certainly. Nobody on either side wants to turn the Boras-Nats relationship into a nightmare.
The most intuitively appealing contract number is probably close to $10 million. That way Harper would break the previous record for a 17-year-old by about 50 percent. Last year, Strasburg broke the old record for a college pitcher by about 50 percent, too. Both would be rich, neither would have bragging rights.
"I don't have any advice [for him]," Strasburg said on Sunday after pitching five innings, allowing one earned run with no walks and seven strikeouts. Then, in a rarity, Strasburg stepped up to volunteer a comment: "If he wants to play here, he's going to play here. He doesn't need advice from anyone to confirm his views. If he doesn't want to play here, then we don't want him here."
One plausible Strasburg translation: At 11:58 p.m., if you want to play baseball, then tell your agent to close the deal. Like I did.