January 30, 2014
An Agent's Take
Navigating Free Agency
Joshua Kusnick is an MLBPA-certified agent who periodically writes about his experiences representing professional players. You can subscribe to his podcast on iTunes, and reach him via email at JoshuaKusnick@aol.com and on Twitter @JoshuaKusnick.
There is no offseason for agents. I’ve had a full plate this winter, putting in many hours of marketing work, free agent work, and arbitration work. I can’t go into specifics of the arbitration process for obvious reasons (mostly self-preservation), but I can discuss the marketing process and free agent process to some extent.
Because of the service time of my clients, I had only six-year minor league free agents this year. Two players have signed or resigned with their respective clubs, while three remain in the player pool. Free agency has three waves: the opening crush, the second wave (which started in January this year), and the final flurry before spring training, though sporadic signings occur throughout the spring depending on injuries and team needs. In most instances, when six-year free agency begins ( five days after the World Series ends), clubs contact the agent about their client or clients. Two of my client decided their best opportunities to reach the major leagues in 2014 were to stay with their 2013 clubs. While I still have three players available in free agency, I am optimistic about all of them signing contracts for the 2014 season.
This year was bizarre in the sense that all of free agency came to a halt because of the Masahiro Tanaka situation. It trickled down all the way to six-year free agents, even if they weren’t pitchers. Teams froze the market until Tanaka signed, and now that he has I’m hoping to have several deals done soon. With six-year free agents, you have to do your homework just as you would for a major league free agent. Finding a team that can offer a combination of opportunity and compensation is key. Some players go for the money, while others do in fact take less to join a club that’s more likely to land them in the major leagues again. Another aspect of six-year free agency is the need to put your clients in a prime position to succeed in hopes of possibly sending them overseas to Asia for a big payday.
I like to have all my free agents signed before the Winter Meetings, when clubs can fill their minor league holes during the rule 5 draft. This is the first year in which I’ve had free agents this late in the winter. Injuries and down seasons are the reasons that I believe my guys have yet to sign, but I do believe that all three will find work very soon.
There is a great deal of difference between MLB free agency and six-year free agency. I cannot go over the MLB specifics here, but I am comfortable discussing the six-year process, which I touched on in November. The term “six-year free agency” is a bit misleading. A player must attend six spring trainings for the years to be accrued. So for players drafted in June who cannot attend spring due to the draft being held two months later, six-year free agency turns into seven years just like that. A player can become a free agent by playing out those seven years with one club or by being released. A team can prevent a player from becoming a six-year free agent by adding him to the 40-man roster before the free agent period starts five days after the World Series.
Every agent should be keenly aware of where their clients are with respect to their service time, both minor league and major league. At the major league level, this knowledge lets the agent know when players are arbitration eligible, super 2 eligible, and free agent eligible. At the minor league level, it tells him when the player in his “40-man year,” the year when a team finally has to put him on the 40-man or risk losing him in the rule 5 draft. I have had a disproportionate amount of success in the MLB phase of the rule 5 draft, with David Herndon, Bobby Cassevah, Zach Kroenke, Carlos Monasterios, and Adrian Nieto in the MLB phase and Barret Browning in the Triple-A phase all reaching the major leagues. As you can see all but one of my clients were bullpen arms. Thus far, David Herndon has had the most success at the MLB level and is arbitration eligible in 2014 with 11 more days of service. He is not eligible for super 2 status again. (To be eligible for super 2 status, a player must have more than two but fewer than three years of service time and also rank in the top 22 percent of all second-year players in service time.)
In most instances, discussions with the parent club of the player take place once the minor league season ends. In some cases in which the club would like to retain the player, the club makes contact with the player’s agent. In other cases the agent calls the club trying to get a situation update. Players make next to nothing during their pre-free agent years, which means that the beginning of free agency is the first chance a minor league player has to make significant money.
Sometimes an agent can leverage impending free agency to force the team into deciding whether or not to add their client to the 40-man roster. If one were to say, “My client is going to free agency regardless of offer,” it would pressure the team into either letting the player test the market or putting him on the roster, thus preventing him from being lost to another team. If you do go that route, you’d better be sure that your client is worthy of issuing such an ultimatum, and you’d also better be certain that you can find him another place to play in the event that the team does not add him to the roster. Fortunately, we have drop-dead dates and deadlines that govern these things, so usually deals get done, players get added to rosters, and life goes on as normal.
For the players who are not retained by their clubs, free agency is a scary prospect, since the uncertainty of the job market is a jarring experience. Imagine playing for seven years, maybe even making it to the big leagues, and then in an instant finding that the phone has stopped ringing. In that situation, it’s up to the agent to use all of his or her resources to find work for the player. Every team has a list of every free agent available, along with their contact information and their agent’s information. If a player cannot get a job in the states, places like Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Mexico become real options.
Going overseas is usually a monetary decision. While a player in Triple-A with minimal MLB time would make 10-15K a month stateside, in Korea and Japan players of that ilk can get seasonal salaries of 300-500K or more plus, signing bonuses. I know of at least one player of work after August last year who signed a minor league contract with an MLB team that included an MLB invite to spring training, only to spurn the MLB team and sign in Korea for at least three times what he would have made in the minors. That had to have been a difficult decision: continue chasing the MLB dream in hopes of a huge payday down the line, or take the safe money that in the short term provides for the player’s family. Obviously, that calculus varies from player to player, but I know of several players who are hoping to post huge 2014 seasons in Triple-A, then score a big contract overseas.
The worst scenario is when you have a free agent and the calls either stop or don’t come at all. In this situation, playing overseas is not an option and no affiliated team is interested, so the only option for players who want to continue playing is going to Indy ball. The money there is akin to what players in A-ball make. You really have to want to chase the dream to stick it out in Indy ball, but many players have come back from there, and I can say from personal experience that most Indy ball teams do run first-class organizations. At that point, even though the fans are largely gone and the endorsements have dried up, I still have a responsibility to my client to stick it out until the end. As I have written before, I do my best to be in all of my player’s lives as much as they allow, though it’s heartbreaking to watch the dream slip away and even worse when it’s gone. It’s part of the job and I deal with it as best I can, but I can honestly say that it hasn’t gotten easier, even after 12 years.
If anyone has any specific questions I’ll be happy to try to answer them in the comment section below. I’m sorry that I cannot elaborate on the MLB free agent process or arbitration process, but trade secrets are trade secrets.
Joshua Kusnick is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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