Joshua Kusnick is an MLBPA-certified agent who periodically writes about his experiences representing professional players. He can be reached via email at JoshuaKusnick@aol.com and on Twitter @JoshuaKusnick.
Greetings again, Baseball Prospectus readers. For anyone who remembers me or my old, short-lived BP column, thank you. To anyone who doesn’t know me, my name is Joshua Kusnick. For the last decade or so, I’ve been an MLBPA-certified player agent, which means that I’m permitted to engage in contract negotiations with major-league clubs on behalf of any player who is on the 40-man roster. As this is an especially busy time of year for me, I’d like to give you a look at the challenges facing an agent at this early stage of the offseason.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve worked on finding jobs for my clients to play winter ball in either the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, or Venezuela, as well as handling minor league free agency, endorsement deals, and, in the event that one of my clients ends up in a hearing, arbitration preparation (a process that takes years to prepare for, with major help from many outside parties, specifically the MLBPA). I’ve also been interviewing prospective clients (both amateur and professional), finalizing client contracts for players who have less than three years of MLB service time and, lastly, doing the paperwork to make sure I get paid for my services. (As Dr. Nick Riviera once said, “The most rewarding part was when he gave me my money.”)
Starting on the day the regular season ended, I began contract discussions with teams that had minor league free agents whom I represented, and who would potentially hit the open market five days after the World Series ended. There are several ways to become a minor league free agent. The most common way for a non-40-man player to hit free agency is to reach “six year free agent” status, a misleading name due to the fact that a player must attend six spring trainings in order to accrue enough minor-league service time to reach it. (Since baseball’s draft takes place in June, it’s impossible for a recent draftee to attend spring training, which means that he must wait seven years in order to become a six-year free agent.)
The second way a player becomes a minor-league free agent is if he’s removed from the 40-man for the second time and elects free agency. Lastly, of course, it can happen if a player is released or not tendered a contract, which is especially common if the player is arbitration eligible. In lieu of increasing certain players’ salaries, some teams opt to non-tender them in hopes of retaining them on a minor-league deal at a lower cost. This carries some risk to the teams; if a player is removed from the 40-man roster, he will have to clear waivers, which means that 29 other clubs could decide to add him to their own 40-man. Alternatively, if the player clears waivers for the second time, he has the right to elect free agency. And lastly, if the player has accrued enough minor-league service time and clears waivers after the season has ended, he could decide to exercise his right to test free agency via the six-year route.
Some decisions are easier than others. Some players opt to stay with the organization they’re with because they feel comfortable in that situation, while others have to make a life-changing decision to leave a club they’ve been with for seven seasons and enter the great unknown that is free agency. In most cases, these contracts are handled by the team’s minor-league director or assistant general manager and ultimately cleared with the general manager.
Currently, I’m in the process of negotiating four minor-league free agent contracts, and a fifth, for Jiwan James of the Philadelphia Phillies, has already been finalized, which means that Jiwan will be Phillies property for at least one more season barring an addition to the 40-man roster.
I’ve known Jiwan James since 2007, when at age 18 he was drafted as a pitcher by the Phillies. Jiwan got hurt early in his career, moved to the outfield shortly thereafter, and was on the fast track until injuries derailed him in 2013. Representing him has been a unique experience. In 2011, I was fired by Jiwan for reasons beyond my control, but we ended things on as good terms as we could. Once the opportunity to reenter the picture presented itself this season, I was more than happy to sign on again given the nature of our relationship. Taking back a client who had previously fired me is not something I had ever done in my 12 years in the business, and yet it happened three times this season, with Darren Ford (formerly of the Giants) and Adrian Nieto of the Nationals being the other two.
I’ve known Ford since he was 18 and Nieto since he was 14, so my history with these men had a lot to do with the effort I expended to repair any damage that had been done to the agent-player relationship. It was a valuable lesson in not burning bridges, and I am happy to have these guys back in my life. Ford has a World Series ring thanks to his time in San Francisco in 2010, and is facing free agency, while Nieto was invited to the Arizona Fall League coming off a breakthrough season that could culminate in his addition to the 40-man roster.
Any agent can talk to any player who’s not on a 40-man roster without restraint. If a player is on the 40-man, there are very strict guidelines that all MLBPA-certified agents must follow in order to talk to him. The contact must be reported to the union, and even after it’s reported communications are monitored and limited. The nice thing is that any player on the 40-man can tell the union to notify all MLBPA agents to stop contacting him about switching agencies, and the union will send out a notice to all agents to back off with threat of penalties if ignored. Since James hasn’t yet been on the 40-man, our friendship was able to continue without consequence.
As soon as I was retained by Jiwan again, I contacted the Phillies front office, with whom I have some familiarity since I also represent RHP David Herndon, who pitched there for three seasons before being claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays and then the Yankees. The first phone call was to the director of minor-league operations, followed by another to the director of player development. Since I signed on so late in the process—a week after the season ended—I had a lot of catching up to do. Jiwan is a very young six-year free agent, and given his vast potential and raw athleticism he very likely would have been a coveted minor-league free agent. He and I had to weigh the risks and rewards of staying in Philly versus testing the open market.
The two most important things to look at when it comes to free agency at the minor-league level are the opportunity to play and the opportunity to be fairly compensated financially. Whichever team offers a player the best chance of reaching the major leagues, along with a salary in line with his worth, usually stands the best chance of landing him. Familiarity goes a long way as well. Some players are simply not interested in testing free agency because of the uncertainty of the open market, and some players just do not want to risk going somewhere that seems like a good fit early on but could eventually become a massive roadblock if the team decides to go after a high-dollar free agent at the same position.
In Jiwan’s case, his familiarity with the Phillies and the Phillies’ with Jiwan made the situation fairly easy. All that was left to do was hammer out the financials. A player earns more money with each level he advances, so when negotiating a minor-league split deal (which also covers a player’s call-up salary), an agent must extract maximum value. In this case, the Phillies were more than fair, and the deal was signed very early in Jiwan’s offseason. He is looking forward to being the everyday center fielder in Triple-A if he is healthy and productive.
Guys like Jiwan always intrigue me. I do have a background in scouting, and players like Jiwan are exciting because when the light bulb goes off and everything clicks, you have a real talent on your hands. Signing a contract early had a ripple effect on Jiwan’s offseason, since it meant that he no longer had an interest in playing winter ball out of the country due to the obvious injury risks involved. Had Jiwan not signed and instead tested the free agent waters, playing out of the country could have significantly increased his worth—or, on the flipside, completely decimated his value if he had gotten injured or played poorly.
I should mention that before a minor-league player reaches the open market, his salary is literally at or near the poverty level. Any minor-league player not on the 40-man roster is not protected by the MLBPA, and so minor-league salaries have not changed much in the last 40 years. Most of my clients in class-A ball were making $1500 a month, with no salary in spring training or the offseason. Multiply that by five and you have a salary of $7500 a year, which does not include housing, food, and (for players without agents) high-quality equipment or endorsements. College seniors have it the roughest, since most do not get much money through the draft. Many of them have to take regular jobs during the offseason just to make ends meet. Playing baseball for a living is a privilege and an honor, but only about one percent of players make it to the point where they are financially solvent.
I hope this sheds some light on the life of a minor-league player. I always stress that players should be kind to everyone and always remember where they came from, and I like to believe that my clients are very giving with their time and are respectful to all fans. If anyone has a sour encounter with a player, just try to chalk it up to his having a bad day. I assure you that most of them are very good guys.
Back to winter ball. When negotiating a winter ball contract for any player, 40-man roster protected or not, there are several things an agent can ask for in order to maximize the player’s value in this quasi-free agent vacuum. I have had to negotiate the following things in various winter ball contracts: hotel suites, internet access inside a player’s room, cell phones, phone cards, airfare for the player’s family or girlfriend, rental cars, guaranteed salary language, and many on-field incentive bonuses for strikeouts, wins, appearances, saves, holds, home runs, batting average, runs, stolen bases, hits, etc. It is a very time-consuming process, but overall a rewarding one.
In winter ball, minor-league players get a chance to experience a high level of competition while making more money per month than they ever have in the minors. Major-league players get to stay in shape (and continue to get compensated) by playing live games almost year-round. Winter ball can be a terrific showcase for minor-league players and free agents; the leagues are heavily scouted, so if a player excels during the winter-ball season, he could become a prime candidate for selection in the rule 5 draft (if eligible). Free agents get a chance to increase their worth on the open market and to stay in affiliated baseball. Salaries vary from league to league and player to player. This can be problematic, because if a player would prefer to play in Puerto Rico and is offered only $6000 a month to play there, while a team in Venezuela is offering $15000 a month, the player has to make a decision about what's best for him and his family, sometimes sacrificing a preferred destination for more money.
Winter ball is also a time for teams to experiment with players by playing them at new positions or converting starters to relief (and vice versa). I’m dealing with this exact issue right now. Team X wants player Z to transition from reliever to starter, which I wholeheartedly disagree with. I always have to balance the best interests of my clients against respecting the club’s absolute right to do what they feel is best for themselves. Sometimes, the idea of what is best for the player doesn't match up between team and agent, and that’s where an agent’s relationship with team officials comes into play. Most of the time, the team will defer to the player’s wishes, but sometimes the team pushes forward and decides to do what they feel is best.
I usually try to stay out of on-field club decisions, but on some occasions I am forced to step in and say something to the club on behalf of the player to paint a clear picture of why such a move might be detrimental to his career. If something isn't broken, don't mess with it. As simple as that sounds, some teams just can’t stop tinkering with players. Results vary from total failure to total success. Very rarely is there an in-between, so in my mind, why risk it, especially in the case of a relief pitcher. Infielders are different, since the ability to play multiple positions adds value, whereas in the outfield it can have a dramatic financial impact. Moving a player from center field to left field could drastically impact a player’s salary when arbitration time comes, since whatever the offensive numbers are, they always look better in center.
I am open to any and all suggestions on what to write about in future installments, and will do my best to minimize hyperbole. I promise to do my best to not make this a sell job, and I assure you that this is not a recruiting tool—I have not landed or lost any clients as a result of these stories. I am doing this for the fans and for myself, because I love writing. Just go easy on me, since I don’t write for a living—I talk for a living. As my favorite movie quote goes, “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk.”
Res ipsa loquitur,