Tuesday, September 9, 2008
With Boras in the picture, Alvarez's career put on hold
By Jerry Crasnick
If and when Pedro Alvarez signs with the Pirates, he will automatically become the most hated player among fans since Dave Parker allowed himself to get woefully out of shape in the early 1980s and became the target of battery throwers in the outfield seats at Three Rivers Stadium.
-- John Perrotto, Beaver County (Pa.) Times
The Pirates tell me Pedro Alvarez is a good player and a good kid. I'll take their word about his potential as a big-time slugging third baseman. But that good-kid business? I'm not buying it. Not now, anyway. Alvarez looks like a louse to me. A coward, too.
-- Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Well, so much for the honeymoon period.
All was jubilant three weeks ago when the Pirates announced that they'd beaten the midnight Aug. 15 deadline and signed Alvarez, the second pick in Major League Baseball's June draft, to a contract with a $6 million bonus. The arrival of the former Vanderbilt star symbolized a new direction for the franchise and a welcome change from years of low-cost, "signability" picks and competitive inertia.
The Pirates thought they'd landed a savior. What they got, instead, was a box seat at the Scott Boras Olympics.
Alvarez's introduction to pro ball is currently on hold because of a grievance filed by the Players Association, which contends that Major League Baseball violated the rules by allowing the Pirates to sign Alvarez after the deadline. Shyam Das, a baseball arbitrator, will hear the arguments Wednesday and choose from an array of options. Depending on your source of information, the remedies could range from a wrist slap and an admonishment of "don't do that again" for MLB to outright free agency for Alvarez.
As Alvarez awaits his fate, the soap opera surrounding the proceedings makes the case seem like an afterthought. Pirates president Frank Coonelly raised the stakes in an unusually harsh press release, in which he charged Boras, Alvarez's advisor, with trying to re-do the deal and squeeze more money out of the club.
"Regrettably, we are not surprised that Mr. Boras would attempt to raise a meritless legal claim in an effort to compel us to renegotiate Pedro's contract to one more to his liking," the club said.
There's plenty of animosity to go around. Coonelly spent almost a decade as a lawyer in the commissioner's office before joining the Pirates, and MLB is sensitive to the perception that it might have done a favor for a former employee. Meanwhile, the Pirates' statement clearly fingers Boras, baseball's most successful agent and biggest lightning rod, as the architect of this fiasco. That's a sure public relations winner in blue-collar Pittsburgh.
"You can understand why Frank wants to paint this as Frank Coonelly versus Scott Boras, round 296," said a baseball source close to the Alvarez situation.
Yet Boras isn't the only one crying foul over the Pirates' behavior. Michael Weiner, general counsel for the union, responded to Coonelly's release by charging the Pirates' president with "inaccurate" statements. Boras has since urged Coonelly to "come clean with the fans of Pittsburgh" over the team's alleged attempts to squeeze through an agreement after the official deadline.
Alvarez isn't the only player snagged in this web. Aaron Crow, a University of Missouri pitcher advised by the Randy and Alan Hendricks group, did not sign a contract but reportedly engaged in talks with the Washington Nationals after the deadline. Eric Hosmer, a high school first baseman out of Florida, agreed to a $6 million deal with the Kansas City Royals, but has been pulled off the field with his short-season team in Idaho Falls until the grievance is resolved.
Hosmer also is advised by Boras, who has declined to discuss the specifics of the case, but insists that his final discussions with the Royals came well in advance of the midnight deadline.
While the lawyers prepare their arguments, Alvarez is being demonized before he ever boots a groundball or strikes out with the bases loaded. He's emerging (to his potential detriment) as western Pennsylvania's answer to J.D. Drew, who engaged in a prolonged and nasty dispute with the Phillies a decade ago and is still booed mercilessly each time he sets foot in Philadelphia.
To many in the industry, Alvarez's plight embodies the potential downside of Boras representation. Boras is known for blazing trails, exploiting loopholes, setting records and making history in draft negotiations, and some relationships are strained in the process. Yet as Boras asserted in an interview with ESPN.com, "99 percent" of his draft dealings with clubs go "smoothly." He points to Mark Teixeira, Mike Pelfrey and numerous other recent picks who have signed lucrative deals with negligible drama.
So where does Pedro Alvarez fit in the equation? Is he a talented player just seeking fair market value, or a pawn used to further Boras' agenda? Is he an earnest kid who panicked and agreed to an illegal contract under duress, or did he verbally agree to a deal and then go back on his word? Within the confines of front offices, the latter is a cardinal sin. As one agent put it, "It's so egregious to renege on a deal. That's like spitting in somebody's face."
|Pedro Alvarez (24) was the No. 2 overall pick in this past June's amateur draft.|
Those who know him best say Alvarez is mischaracterized as a villain. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin has come to Alvarez's defense in several media interviews. Ryan Flaherty, a former Vanderbilt teammate who signed with the Chicago Cubs in June as the 41st pick in the draft, is one of Alvarez's closest friends. The two plan to work out together this fall at Vanderbilt, where Flaherty will return to get his degree. In the interim, Flaherty is happy to serve as a character witness for his buddy.
"You'd never know Pedro was a star if you hung around with him," Flaherty said. "He just likes to be part of the team. He doesn't want to be the guy who's out there in the spotlight.
"He likes to play more than anybody I played with in my college career, and this is holding him back from doing that. I know that's the part that's killing him inside, more than the money or anything else -- that he isn't able to play."
The fans are judging Pedro Alvarez, and you should judge the people first who violate the rules. Pedro's conduct in this matter isn't even relevant. This is about a violation of the rules and collective bargaining.
It's worth noting, at the outset, that the grievance is not a case of Boras' saying "jump" and the Players Association responding, "How high?" Union officials strongly believe that the action had to be filed to uphold a collectively bargained provision in the labor deal, and they're confident they'll prevail before Das.
While the Players Association thinks Das can choose from a host of remedies, the Pirates counter that the range of options is limited.
"The short answer is that there is no chance Pedro could be declared a free agent," Coonelly said in an e-mail. "So, either the contract stands and Pedro starts his career in Pittsburgh late and with a lot of questions to answer or he goes back in the draft next year and does not get the deal to which he was very happy to agree on the 15th."
For sure, Das' decision will say a lot about the sanctity of deadlines in baseball.
Until modifications in the 2006 labor agreement, the draft signing deadline was a moving target. Draft picks were free to sign at any point until they attended their first college class. So the player, in actuality, controlled the deadline. If he chose to attend Sociology 101 on Tuesday, he was free to do so. Or maybe he would pick up the class notes from a friend and wait until Thursday.
The clubs wanted a more concrete deadline. So after considerable give-and-take, with mutual concessions on topics ranging from draft-compensation rules to a change in the contract tender date, the two sides settled on midnight Aug. 15.
Now, the union alleges, Major League Baseball is manipulating the deadline by allowing clubs to go past midnight without the necessary approval of the Players Association. A source said that several confused or "outraged" agents called the union the night of Aug. 15 with reports that clubs were bending the deadline rule. And it's no wonder: If the commissioner's office were allowed to play fast-and-loose with the deadline, it could significantly hamper players' leverage in talks.
Boras maintains that he removed himself from the Alvarez talks after midnight because agent certification rules require him to report illegal contact with his player.
"That's why this thing is so patently unfair," Boras said. "The fans are judging Pedro Alvarez, and you should judge the people first who violate the rules. Pedro's conduct in this matter isn't even relevant. This is about a violation of the rules and collective bargaining."
Boras, of course, has always been adept at using the leverage of deadlines, and is frequently accused of brinksmanship or playing "chicken" by front office people. But in reality, it's a two-way street. Any team that wants to shoot the moon on a Boras pick will never announce the signing in, say, early July, because it knows it will risk the ire of the commissioner's office by setting the bonus bar high for everybody else. The teams are instructed to wait as long as possible in such cases.
On the legal merits alone, the Alvarez case was bound to be the talk of the industry. But the interpersonal rivalries and strong personalities make for an especially colorful story line. As much as Boras would like to fade into the background and make this the union's fight, he is inevitably in the eye of the storm.
ESPN.com spoke with nearly a dozen executives, scouting directors and scouts to gauge how the dispute is being viewed within the game. It's a mark of Boras' clout that they all either declined to comment or spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
While several baseball insiders speculated that Boras' "ego" is a factor in the dispute, the overwhelming majority expressed sadness or frustration over Alvarez's plight. He is, after all, 21 years old, and a novice to the process.
"I cannot see for the life of me where we're looking out for the best interests of the player now," said an AL scouting director. "Is this what's best for Pedro Alvarez? That's what baffles me. The kid should wrestle the pen away and say, 'Let's go.'"
The surrounding circumstances add to the intrigue. Just as Alvarez's talks were coming down to the wire, the San Francisco Giants were concluding negotiations with Florida State catcher Buster Posey. Posey was selected with the fifth pick in the draft -- three spots behind Alvarez -- but received a slightly higher bonus of $6.2 million.
Posey is represented by Jeff Berry of Creative Artists Associates, a firm run by former minor leaguer Casey Close. The group's clientele includes Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, Ryan Braun, Derrek Lee and Ben Sheets. In a recent Sports Business Journal story, Close was rated the 15th most influential agent in sports. Boras ranked third.
Last summer, Jordan Danks, an outfielder at the University of Texas, dropped Boras for Jeff Berry and CAA between the first and second day of the draft. Danks proceeded to sign for a reported bonus of about $500,000 as a seventh-round pick with the Chicago White Sox. His brother John, a pitcher for the White Sox, also switched representation from Boras' group to Creative Artists.
The competition for clients in the draft is so intense, many people in the industry are convinced this controversy is rooted in a battle for influence between rival agent groups.
"Scott has to have the top bonus in the draft, and that's what it's about," said an American League general manager. "When Scott goes out and recruits players next year, he's going to have CAA out there saying, 'Hey, we got more than Scott Boras did even though our guy was taken later.'"
Boras strongly denies that professional jealousies or Pedro Alvarez's place in the draft pecking order contributed to the current stalemate. Boras said he alerted the union to the Pirates' alleged illegal conduct before he had any idea of the size of Posey's deal with San Francisco.
"Look, I've done the highest bonus in the draft about 20 times," Boras said. "I did the first 50, 100 and 200 million dollar contracts. After doing this for 30 years, I don't need to prove my point that I can negotiate a contract."
|Scott Boras is in the spotlight more than any other agent in baseball.|
The controversy has certainly taken some luster off a feel-good story. Pedro Alvarez is the pride of the Washington Heights section of New York. His father, Pedro Sr., came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic and drives a taxi cab for a living. Now his son is sitting idle and being vilified while a fortune sits unclaimed at the middle of the negotiating table.
The backlash from the grievance isn't likely to make Alvarez's route to the majors any easier. Some veteran players will consider him a prima donna and believe he has a sense of entitlement. If he struggles, writers will judge him harshly and he could begin his pro career with a target on his back.
"Assuming this kid is going to play at some point, I think the perception, rightly or wrongly, is that $6 million dollars isn't enough -- that he's more special than anyone else in the draft, and he can go against what he agreed to because it's unfair," said an American League executive. "That's going to create even loftier expectations than the $6 million bonus created. Everybody will say, 'All right, prove it now. You're out on the field. Show us how special you are.'"
Big league clubs -- and the majority of established players -- subscribe to the notion that money should be earned. Front office people talk glowingly about Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki, who signed quickly in the 2005 draft and made it to the majors in a heartbeat. Braun (eight years, $45 million) and Tulowitzki (six years, $31 million) have since signed long-term contracts that will take them through their arbitration years and the beginning of free agency.
Boras' "special" clients, in contrast, don't sign discounted deals in exchange for long-term security, and they frequently push the envelope in the draft. Long before Jason Varitek became the beloved captain of the Boston Red Sox, he was enmeshed in a draft dispute with the Seattle Mariners and signed with the Saint Paul Saints of the Northern League. Both Alex Rodriguez and Drew were involved in protracted negotiations that resulted in grievances before they signed.
Arizona pitcher Max Scherzer chose Boras as his draft "advisor" while at the University of Missouri. Scherzer failed to reach an agreement with the Diamondbacks as the 11th overall pick in the 2006 draft, and played independent ball with the Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League.
He was on the verge of re-entering the draft in 2007 when the Diamondbacks scrambled to sign him to a four-year major league contract that guaranteed him $4.3 million and could be worth as much as $5.85 million.
Scherzer said he can relate to what Pedro Alvarez is going through these days. He, too, was called greedy or worse by people who had never met him. But Scherzer never regretted his decision to choose Boras. He's heard the industry buzz that Boras players are easily led and not necessarily the most independent thinkers, and he takes issue with that characterization.
"Scott's had 30 years of experience dealing with contract negotiations at various levels, from the draft to free agency to arbitration," Scherzer said. "He has a very good feel for what's going on and what's going to happen. You want him to handle everything. If you try to take over the negotiations, you're just going to hurt yourself.
"I know from my experiences that you have control of it. Scott would come to me and we'd have discussions, but he didn't force a single thing on me. If you don't like where it's going, you can always say, 'All right. I can't take it anymore. I've got to sign,' or, "I've got to play.'"
Scherzer sees the negative reaction to Alvarez as an inevitable byproduct of an "ugly side" of the game.
"You're going to get slammed," Scherzer said. "I got hammered because everybody was saying, 'Why don't you sign? You're a first rounder, but you haven't done anything in the major leagues.' But when you have a college kid who has zero dollars, this is the one chance he has to take care of his life and his family. An extra million for a draft pick means so much more than a big leaguer trying to go from $100 million to $101 million."
Boras, in the course of preparing his high-end players for the rigors of the draft, tells them to steel themselves for the fallout if they pursue their fair market value. Of course, the definition of "fair" is relative. Boras routinely floats high figures for his elite picks, to the point where many baseball executives roll their eyes.
"These are the rules of perception," Boras said. "Rule No. 1: The player is always [viewed as] wrong if he turns down any amount of money. That's because the evaluation comes from the team. The team says it's fair, and the fans and writers have no point of comparison, because the player has never performed at the major league level.
"I always tell players, 'If you allow the rules of perception to run your day, you have to sacrifice your true value and representation that may be appropriate for your rights. As a player, you have to believe in yourself -- not what others say to you.'"
No one has heard Pedro Alvarez's opinion on the topic, because he's basically been sequestered since the draft. If the union wins its grievance, Alvarez and Boras will be vindicated to a large degree. And if Alvarez performs to expectations in the majors, he will make lots of money and get plenty of love down the road.
At the moment, the cheers must feel a world away. As Pedro Alvarez awaits the resolution of his case, he's found that standing your ground carries a price that can't be measured in dollars.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
The short answer is that there is no chance Pedro could be declared a free agent. So, either the contract stands and Pedro starts his career in Pittsburgh late
or he goes back in the draft next year.
--Pirates team president Frank Coonelly