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February 21, 2014

The Phillies, Ben Wetzler, and the NCAA

What Were the Phillies Thinking, and What Will the Consequences Be?

by Nick J. Faleris


Last June the Philadelphia Phillies used their fifth- and sixth-round draft picks to select Pac 10 talents Ben Wetzler (LHP, Oregon State) and Jason Monda (OF, Washington State), ultimately failing to sign each. Earlier this week Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt broke the news that last fall the Phillies turned in both Wetzler and Monda to the NCAA, claiming that both violated NCAA regulations that prevent an amateur player from using an agent to negotiate a contract on the player’s behalf. Violation of those regulations has the potential to negate the player’s NCAA eligibility. Monda has since been cleared to play, while Wetzler sits on the sidelines with his case still under review.

It is commonplace for amateur players to solicit the assistance of an agent when dealing with major league clubs and the draft, though the relationship is technically supposed to be limited to the agent serving in an advisory capacity whereby the agent can give advice to the athlete and his family but cannot directly represent the player in dealings with major league teams. Almost every drafted player utilizes an agent advisor, with a portion relying on family members or a close friend to assist in contract negotiations.

Whether the accusations of Monda’s and Wetzler’s alleged improprieties were a result of a decision somewhere up the Philly food chain or the actions of a lone wolf, the act itself cannot be classified as anything but a spiteful response to the organization’s interaction with these players last summer. Media members, agents, and college reps have reacted to the story in a uniform manner, expressing anger, distaste, and dismay that a major league organization would take such actions with nothing to gain outside of terminating the eligibility of two collegiate athletes who ultimately decided they were not prepared to start their pro career.

Scouts with whom I have spoken over the last 24 hours have neglected to comment on the record but have generally expressed a lack of understanding of the motivation behind the Phillies’ actions, given the absence of any actual benefit to the organization and the potential for both a short- and long-term negative impact on their amateur scouting efforts. Area scouts rely on agent advisors and college reps to assist in collecting info on players, from obtaining playing schedules to gaining access to facilities or the players themselves. Both groups have vociferously denounced the Phillies’ actions, with some agent advisors insisting that this will have a dramatic impact on the Phillies’ ability to gain access to their student athletes this spring.

One agent advisor, however, had a more pragmatic response:

It definitely will not help [the Phillies] for the draft, and I think the trust level has gone down to zero. I think they will see some backlash, and they may have to alter their draft board a little, but in the end money still talks…they will still draft and sign quality players. I have seen quotes today from agents stating that the ‘Phillies are not getting into any more of our households’ and I have to laugh. I thought the advisor/agent works for the client and the client determines who he does and does not talk to?

The agent advisor’s point is well taken, and while it is important for these representatives to come out loud and angry in light of the Philly/Wetzler revelations, at the end of the day it is not their place to battle with a major league organization at the expense of their current clients’ future.

So what is the ultimate takeaway from this scandal? One certainty is that there is plenty of blame to go around.

NCAA’s Nonsensical No-Agent Rule
Without question the largest issue at play here is the NCAA’s insistence that amateur athletes, negotiating terms of employment with executives in a multi-billion dollar industry, should be denied legal representation. College baseball players do not declare for the draft, and they can retain their amateur status even after being drafted, provided they abide by certain rules and regulations, one of which is NCAA Bylaw 12.3.2.1, which states:

…a lawyer may not be present during discussions between a student-athlete and a professional team or have any direct contact (in person, by telephone or by mail) with a professional sports organization on behalf of” a student-athlete.”

Of course, this makes absolutely no sense. The mere act of discussing potential employment does not bestow upon the amateur player any financial benefit, which is the crux of the professional/amateur distinction. Moreover, technical default under this language could be argued to include basic interactions outside of formal contract negotiations. For example, some agent advisors refuse to speak to major league scouts about matters as simple as team schedules and will go so far as to avoid making any contact with their players immediately before and after games at certain high-traffic high school tournaments, the time when most scouts will chat the players up, due to past scrutiny of interactions of this type.

Quite simply, the NCAA is placing its amateur baseball players at a massive disadvantage throughout a process that involves some of the players’ biggest professional life decisions. The rules operate to no one’s benefit and carry tragic consequences for the players. That’s not to mention the woefully incompetent manner in which the NCAA handles its investigations of supposed infractions. It is inexcusable that Wetzler’s status is still undetermined, and the delay means that if the Oregon State ace is in fact ruled ineligible, he will likely be forced to leave school if he wants to enter the 2014 draft, as it is too late in the season for him to transfer to a school outside of the NCAA’s purview. Says another agent advisor:

I think the time is not too far off when someone sues the NCAA again over the ‘no agent’ rule and actually refuses to accept a settlement, unlike Andy Oliver did back in '09. To prevent inexperienced and easily-influenced young men from having legal counsel help negotiate an employment services contract on their behalf with a corporation is ludicrous, insane, immoral, and unjust. And we already have a court of law saying as much.

What Were the Phillies Thinking?
As noted earlier, the actions of the Philadelphia Phillies regarding Wetzler, Monda, and the NCAA are irrational as well as petty and spiteful. If Wetzler is ruled ineligible, the Phillies will not benefit in any way. It would not dissuade future players from returning to school, and in fact might lead to additional hurdles for the organization’s evaluators to overcome in the draft arena.

As the agent advisor noted above, money talks, and the Phillies will still be able to draft and sign quality players. Where they could be hurt is if players ultimately decide they do not want to give any information to the Phillies regarding “their number” (the dollar amount for which they’d be willing to sign a contract upon being drafted), for fear that any deviation from that number will be met with acts of retribution.

Particularly under the new CBA draft rules, it is important for teams to have a solid understanding of their targets, the signability of their targets, and the areas of the draft that are likely to provide them allotment savings (signing a player for less than the amount allotted by Major League Baseball for that particular draft slot) and allotment overages (signing a player for more than the amount allotted by Major League Baseball for that particular draft slot). In this planning stage, knowledge is power. If the Phillies have narrowed the information pipeline even a little, they have done themselves a huge disservice. Additionally, there remains the threat that universities could begin limiting access (a full ban seems highly unlikely) of Phillies scouts to players before and after games. Coaches may also be less likely to keep the Phillies’ area scouts equally informed about workouts, rotation schedules, and the like, even if the slips are only periodic.

The impact on the Phillies as a whole will not be cataclysmic, but having your scouts operate at any disadvantage at all is a big deal. The club has yet to release a statement regarding the situation, but most feel that some public amends will need to be made to avoid the risk of being forced to deal with uncooperative partners on the side of the players, including the agent advisors and the schools themselves.

It can be highly frustrating for an organization, and an area scout in particular, to have a player move the goalposts by changing “their number” after being drafted. A large responsibility of the area scout is to determine that number, as well as the makeup of the player and the player’s desire to start his professional career. Failing to sign an early pick can reflect poorly on the area scout, both inside and outside of the organization, and reputation is important in a close-knit industry that can at times require an evaluator to search for jobs in multiple organizations throughout his career.

Ironically, the presence of high-quality agent advisors in the process helps both parties avoid these non-signings, as an agent advisor has the experience and the contextual knowledge to help ground a player’s (and his player’s family’s) expectations. Most of the instances of post-draft changes in demands and ultimate non-signings have been a result of unreasonable expectations on the part of the parents of the player. The system works best when a player and his family receive good counsel from an experienced agent advisor, which points our finger at the final culprit.

The Responsibility of the Agent Advisor
The concept of the agent advisor is problematic, demanding a “man behind the curtain” approach that complicates and retards interactions between would-be signees and the teams while carrying with it the risk of ruining any chance the player has of going to college and playing ball. Still, there are general best practices that can be followed to help minimize the chances of an NCAA sanction being levied, as one agent advisor explains:

It's like the speed limit of 55 mph on our highways. Everyone knows it's an old and outdated speed limit and nobody ever drives 55 mph. But if you get caught going more than 55, you will still be pulled over and issued a ticket. However, if you know how the system works, you can exceed 55 and not get a ticket. [For example,] it's a well-known unwritten rule that unless you are [driving recklessly], police officers will not stop you for going up to 9 mph over the stated limit. Even the tickets themselves only give options for the officers to state the speed was ‘10 or more over.’ Use a radar detector, know the hiding spots of the cops, never be the fastest car on the road, etc. Same thing applies to advising kids for the MLB Draft.

Obviously the entire issue is non-existent if the NCAA does away with its ridiculous no-agent rule, but the point remains that there is a real responsibility for agent advisors to find a way to work within the best practices of the industry. The same agent advisor had this to say about the actions of his contemporary in this instance (assuming, of course, that the Phillies’ accusations are upheld):

This particular advisor was either too stupid or too negligent in not being aware of the NCAA rules and how they pertain to his client. Clearly, this advisor did not have the best interests of his client in mind; only his own. There are ways of getting around the NCAA rules and regulations to help your client and also not be violative such that you put your client's collegiate eligibility in jeopardy. Good advisors know how to do this.

As a practicing attorney myself, this sentiment rings true. Agent advisors are in the unenviable position of being forced to aggressively represent the interests of their amateur baseball clients without being given full latitude to do so. Should they be forced to tap dance around the no-agent requirements of the NCAA? Of course not. But for the time being that’s the world we live in.

Conclusion
Without question, the current Wetzler situation involves a truckload of blame that can be attributed to multiple parties. The unfortunate reality is that ultimately, Wetzler and his Oregon State teammates are the only ones who truly suffer. Until forced to alter its ways via court action, the NCAA will continue to mete out punishment for nonsensical rules as it sees fit. The Phillies will continue to draft and sign talented amateur players. Agent advisors, good and bad, will continue to profit from the process. My advice to players and their families: Retain the services of an agent advisor, and make sure he knows exactly what he is doing. Your interests are the only interests not being protected throughout this process. I’d also keep the Phillies toward the back of my in-home visit list for the time being.

Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here

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