June 6, 2014
An Agent's Take
When Post-Draft Negotiations Get Strained
Joshua Kusnick is an MLBPA-certified agent who periodically writes about his experiences representing professional players. You can reach him via email at JoshuaKusnick@aol.com and on Twitter @JoshuaKusnick.
As I explained last time, I decided in 2010 to avoid representing players in the amateur draft. That decision has paid dividends for my one-man agency, and today it pays dividends for you, because I’m now free to share a pair of fun post-draft negotiation stories.
On draft day, Adrian was at my office with his parents, listening to the draft on a laptop in a huge conference room. First round, no phone calls. Second round, no phone calls. Third round, still no phone calls. Nothing changed until the fifth, when the Washington Nationals selected him without even having called us beforehand. Despite his having fallen, the Nats selecting him without warning was the best outcome that could have occurred, since we hadn’t agreed upon any terms, which would have robbed our side of a lot of leverage.
Then we waited.
Months went by with no contact. Then, while on a road trip to California a week before the signing deadline (Darren Ford had just been traded for Ray Durham and sent to the Cal League), I got a call from Nationals general manager Jim Bowden at 6 AM Pacific. I’ll never forget that call, for a multitude of reasons.
First, Jim called me unexpectedly. Second, it was a conference call with the entire front office, and it caught me completely off guard. I had to ask him if I could call him back so I could get my composure privately before talking to the club. (Remember, the club called me directly, thus possibly violating NCAA rules against negotiating with an advisor, but this was in the Wild West days when things like this happened all the time.) I was 26 years old and just building a name for myself in the business, so this was not a deal I could afford to screw up. I called Nationals Scouting Director Dana Brown and asked him why Jim had called me, and he told me just to call Jim back. I did, and the strangest call of my career ensued.
Bowden had me on speaker and informed me that the entire front office was in the room—including Brown and assistant GMs Bob Boone and Mike Rizzo—and that he "wanted to know where we stood with regard to signing Adrian Nieto." I stated my case quite plainly, and in the middle of it was interrupted by Bowden, who was screaming at me, saying, "I bet you want $500k,” to which I responded, “Sure, why not?" Jim exploded on me in front of his front office, and at the tail end of the call, Jim said to tell Adrian to have fun in college and that they would just draft him again in three years when Scott Boras was his agent, which prompted me to say, “Jim, good luck with your legal problems.” (At the time, Bowden, along with Pedro Borbon, was being investigated for skimming signing bonuses from Latin prospects.)
Needless to say, that comment set him off even more, and I hung up. This was probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever said to an executive, except for the time when I was accused by one club of telling players that I had its front office in my back pocket. That time, I told the portly executive who’d made the accusation, "With all due respect, I don't think you could fit in my back pocket." STUPID. I’m grateful that my 20s are over.
I flew back to Florida the next day and got another unexpected call, this time from Rizzo, who delivered one of the funniest lines I’ve heard in my career: "Hi, Josh, this is Mike Rizzo of the Nationals. Jim doesn’t want to talk to you anymore, so I am taking over negotiations for Nieto." Awesome.
The slot for Adrian’s pick was $180k. That year, Washington’s top five picks remained unsigned until five days before the deadline, and they ultimately failed to sign their top pick, Aaron Crow. I was worried that one of those other guys would get the overslot dollars before Nieto, since he was the last member of the group drafted. I asked for $500k, hoping to get $400k. The Nationals offered double the slot, $360k. I said that I’d have to ask Adrian. I got the okay from Adrian and then I did a very "Josh" thing: I told Mike I needed a favor and that while I could get Adrian signed ASAP, I wanted $376k.
Rizzo asked me how I came up with that number. I told him that a fourth-round catcher the previous year from the same area had gotten $375k, and I wanted to make a statement I was a better agent than the guy who had gone in the fourth round. Mike asked me if it was Nieto driving this request or me; I asked him if he wanted the honest answer or the BS answer, and he said he preferred the honest answer. I confessed that it was 100 percent me. Rizzo laughed pretty hard and said he would give Adrian $376k, $1000 more than the previous year’s fourth-round catcher (who was taken by the Twins), because I’d been honest. I drove Adrian to Melbourne for his physical, and the contract was signed that day. The $376k he got was the most money given to any player taken in his round that year.
Now that Nieto has been in the big leagues, this is mostly just a funny anecdote between the two of us. However, it was also by far the strangest negotiation I’ve ever had.
That year, I also had to handle the Sulbaran negotiation. J.C. was all but guaranteed to head to UF, and he fell accordingly in the draft, sinking all the way to the 30th round, where he was selected by Cincinnati.
After the draft, the Reds made a very big push to sign Sulbaran. The first offer was $150k and was quickly rejected. The second offer was $250k, and that one too was rejected. By the deadline, J.C. was playing in Holland against Pudge Rodriguez, striking him out in impressive fashion. I came up with an idea: Instead of leveraging the threat of attending college, why not leverage the possibility of J.C.’s playing as a pro in Holland for a year then becoming a free agent? This took the Reds by surprise and scared them enough to double their offer to $500k, then a record for the round, after Sulbaran’s amazing international performance for his age. I actually did get him a tax-free offer in Holland, and he was serious about heading there had the Reds not signed him.
J.C. eventually took the Reds’ offer, but we needed a slight time extension to get the contract turned in because he was in Holland. The Reds dealt with the commissioner's office and were allowed extra time to turn in the paperwork. I no longer work with J.C., but this too was one of the most bizarre negotiations I’d ever been a part of, given the fact that I was threatening the club with the idea that J.C. could actually turn pro in Holland then become a free agent. All that fuss for a 30th-round pick.
Sulbaran’s $500k bonus was a record that stood for a long time, and it helped me make a name for myself. Soon after that, I landed several high-profile draft picks and a first-rounder for 2010. But as I wrote previously, the draft is broken, and I want zero part of it unless it’s an extreme circumstance in which I absolutely need to step in to help someone or in which I could make a significant fee. If a guy going first overall wanted to hire me, I'd be insane to turn that down, but short of that scenario I want no part of the draft, the NCAA, or the recruitment process and would much prefer to focus on guys who are already playing.