May 23, 2014
An Agent's Take
Why I Avoid the Draft
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.
At one time, I regularly represented players in the amateur draft. I learned the nuances of the process, and I did some special deals, getting J.C. Sulbaran $500k in the 30th round, negotiating a seven-figure deal for Rangers first-round pick Kellen Deglan in 2010, and cracking $100k with a senior sign in Mets prospect Stephen Clyne. I’m proud of those accomplishments, but the stories share a common thread: work, and lots of it.
The draft is a totally different animal than normal recruiting for a number of reasons. First contact with a high-school prospect could occur as soon as his freshman year. Then comes the interview process, during which you and every other agency on earth competes for the prospect to retain you. The same goes for college kids, except that in their case, the NCAA and athletic directors are involved. The NCAA, in my estimation, is beyond unnecessary, and in the case of the baseball draft, more punitive than helpful.
When you get hired by a draft prospect—let’s say a 10th-rounder—you’re going to make $5k, give or take, so long as it’s not a senior sign kid with no leverage. Imagine spending an entire year—maybe even three or four—working for an amateur player and making that small an amount of money. Even if the player beats the odds in pro ball, you have to hold on to him for at least 3-4 years until he hits the Show , and then another three until he reaches arbitration. It literally could take a decade to get paid, and that’s if all goes well: the player pans out and doesn’t decide to switch representation. If it doesn’t go well, you could end up spending more than you make, between travel, food, lodging, and phone bills. I much prefer client referrals and scouting because they cut down on my travel, and even though I lose out on signing bonus dollars, I get to add a known commodity right out of the chute.
So because the cost of representing amateur plays is prohibitive for a one-man agency, I made the decision after 2010 to opt out of the draft. I believe I’m the only MLB-certified agent to stay away from the draft almost entirely. This is a strategy. I’m grateful for the men I work for, and I feel that they deserve my complete attention. The only way I can offer that is by cutting something like the draft out of my routine. Almost all of my clients, especially the newer ones, have come as a result of my personal scouting efforts or client referrals. I have to work incredibly hard to keep that pipeline flowing, or my source of income evaporates.
The only way I would jump back into the draft is as a favor or if there’s a referral that makes sense, which does happen occasionally. In 2013 I had two draft picks fall in my lap three weeks before the draft in Carlos Asuaje of the Red Sox and Brandon Diaz of the Brewers. In Asuaje’s case, I had a friend playing for Nova Southeastern University tell me that they had a prospect who had an advisor whom he felt wasn’t helping him at all. Carlos was a Cape Cod League All-Star and a projected high pick. When his advisor at the time realized that he wouldn’t be cashing in instantly on Carlos, he essentially left him hanging. I didn’t intend to poach a draft guy, particularly with only three weeks to work, but as a favor for our mutual friend, I spoke to Carlos on the phone and was horrified to hear what he was telling me. He was ill prepared for the draft, and I felt an obligation to help.
We met the next day, and I was blown away by his makeup, which is probably among the top five I’ve encountered in my career. I decided that I could help him, and that he could be someone special. I was named his advisor that day, condensed a year’s worth of information into three weeks, and promised to be with him on draft day. I explained the draft process and figured out his value was and what workouts to attend and not attend. I also explained what pro ball would be like for him with every phone call.
Five days before the draft, another friend called me with a prospect named Brandon Diaz, who went to my high school (American Heritage). I met with the family, was retained that day, and this time had to take care of everything Brandon needed in less than a week, which is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The one condition with Brandon was that I had to be with him draft day as well. I don’t break promises, and Asuaje had retained me first, so I took my wife’s suggestion to invite both kids to be with me at an intermediate site.
Diaz was deemed unsignable by scouts because of the lack of communication by the family with the teams. Here’s where things get a bit messy. Every team in baseball contacted me once they were informed that Diaz had hired me. By NCAA rules, had he not signed this could have been a disaster. Only after I was told that Brandon was signing regardless of draft round did I speak with teams; otherwise, thanks to the NCAA, he’d have been ineligible to return to school because of having had an agent. I think the NCAA hurts a lot of kids by forcing them to lie about their representation during the draft process, and I’m grateful that I never have to deal with them. Every time the NCAA has called me, I’ve hung up on them. They don’t govern me, and I have no use for them.
On day five of my relationship with Brandon, he became the first player drafted in Broward County. I had helped turn an unsignable kid into a professional. (See? Agents aren’t always the enemy.) Diaz had teams calling starting in the fifth round. There’s nothing worse than agreeing to a deal at a certain pick and then hearing someone else’s name called, which finally ended when the Brewers called in the eighth round. Brandon signed that night and had a great pro debut in Arizona.
In Asuaje’s case, something very bizarre happened. I helped him choose which workouts to attend, and I was certain that he’d be picked in the first 10 rounds. Draft day two rolls around, and in the ninth round, teams start lowballing him because the ones that liked him the most had blown their draft budgets and thought they’d get a Division II sign cheaply. On day three, his dream came true, and he was selected by his favorite team from childhood, the Boston Red Sox. The negotiations were tense in person, since we were dealing with a rookie scout who had never had drafted anyone before, but eight hours later, the deal was done.
With the budgetary restraints loosened after round 10, Carlos got more than quadruple the bonus he would have had he accepted the many ninth-round offers he received. Had I not been there in person to guide him through the process, who knows what would have happened? I do know that Boston’s 10th pick got $10k as a junior—a club-friendly deal that I never would have advised.
I believed it would benefit both Asuaje and Diaz to sign quickly so that we could get a head start on their careers and their endorsements. Lo and behold, both kids got every deal under the sun due in large part to signing so fast, combined with my connections. And even though neither player went in the top five rounds, both ended up with increasingly elusive baseball card deals. As I’ve noted before, the card deal is my favorite endorsement, because the look on a player’s face when he hears he has a card is matched only on draft day and MLB debut day. Cards immortalize players, and now Carlos and Brandon both have them.
And to think, both clients were referrals, a happy accident to say the least. Brandon is headed to Helena, while Carlos is tearing up the South Atlantic League. As for 2014, I’ve done no draft scouting and have no clients in this year’s draft class, another promise I made to my pro clients this spring.
For me, the more common component of player acquisition is good old-fashioned scouting. I’m fortunate to live next to a Florida State League stadium. In May of 2013 I went to an extended spring game and found a righty-handed pitcher who sat 93 to 97 at 6’5”, 200 lbs. I fell in love with the arm. I spoke to him postgame and discovered that he was a 30-something-round pick and had no agent. My wife and I had him over for dinner, and he hired me on the spot. His name is Seth Lugo, and he’s one of my favorite prospects in the FSL, especially since he overcame a back injury that cost him all of 2012. The Mets and the scout who signed him, Tommy Jackson, did well to unearth a gem like him and stick with him to the point that they’re now reaping some of the rewards. It’s his 40-man roster year, and he’s a great candidate to be added to the roster or selected in the rule 5 draft. Had I not gone to the field one day, I’d never have found him. Obviously, luck plays a large role in my job, but you can make your own luck by working hard. The backbone of an agent is being able to scout and then monetizing the scouted players once they’re signed.
I have my eye on a few FSL players this year. Some I’ll land and some I won’t, but I’ll keep grinding, hoping to make more discoveries and add to my agency’s foundation. I’m proud to say that every MLB player I have was drafted in the fifth round or later, except for Jeremy Jeffress—when I scout and sign players before the accolades, as I did with Dalton Pompey (whom I scouted in 2010 and signed in 2013), it helps my retention rate, since I can say I was there when nobody else was. If you have a uniform, you have a chance, and someone is always watching—either scouts, team officials, or even an agent like me.