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.
We’re not even a month into the 2014 season, but I’ve already experienced many of the positive and negative aspects of representing professional baseball players: great starts, slow starts, free agency, club complaints, crushing releases, and signing and scouting new clients. Today I’m going to go over a process not often discussed from my side of the table: being designated for assignment, becoming a free agent, and choosing a new team.
During the first week of the season, one of my clients, Jeremy Jeffress, was designated for assignment by the Toronto Blue for the second time in two years. Jeremy cleared waivers last year, and because that was his first designation, he (like all players on the 40-man roster) did not have the right to elect free agency. The second time a player is designated for assignment, the club has seven days to trade or place the player on waivers, and 10 days in total to complete the waiver process. If the player goes unclaimed the second time, he has the collectively bargained right to become a free agent or accept the minor-league assignment for either his full MLB salary (if he has a guaranteed deal) or his Triple-A negotiated salary. The contract negotiations that determinate which rate he receives are completed prior to the season.
Generally, if a player with MLB service is designated for a second time, I advise him to seek work elsewhere, barring some special circumstance. I think the Blue Jays are a first-class organization, and I work with them often, but in this instance, Jeremy and the club just didn’t click, no matter how badly each side genuinely wanted to work out with the other.
What was hard for the Blue Jays and any other club that wanted to claim Jeremy off waivers—and I know there were several—is that Jeremy is out of options, meaning a team has to carry him on the 25-man roster or risk exposing him to waivers (and free agency) by sending him to the minor leagues. One strange thing did occur in this instance, however. As a rule, a team cannot designate a player unless they have a full 40-man roster. If a team has 39 players on their 40 man, that club would have to add a player to the roster, then make the corresponding designation. In this case, Toronto added Marcus Walden to the roster and lost him off waivers in addition to Jeremy, so I was a little confused about why Jeremy was designated in the first place. Sadly, Toronto lost both players for essentially nothing, which had to be tough.
In addition, any team that claims a player off waivers or signs a player without options to a minor-league deal knows full well that it’s 25-man roster or bust. In the case of a waiver claim or trade, that’s obvious, but when they sign a free agent without options, the team knows that once they promote him, they likely will have to keep him up all year if they want to retain him.
Something fans generally do not know is that any player who elects free agency is taking a massive pay cut. First, the minor-league season ends one month earlier than the major-league season, so that’s one less pay check if the player is not called back up to the majors. Second, most every club has a pay scale for their non-40-man players, so by electing free agency, you know going in that you’re taking a big cut no matter where you land. However, money in the minor leagues should never be the be-all and end-all. Opportunity and the chance to pick where you play in hopes of reaching the big leagues fastest plays a more important role. I’ve advised some clients in this situation to take less money to get hooked up with a team that has a reputation for "fixing" players at their position. All of this brings me to Jeremy’s situation.
Once Jeremy hit free agency, an insane bidding war erupted in which at least 20 teams contacted me regarding his services. However, considerations beyond money and baseball came into play. Normally you look for the best opportunity to get back to the big leagues, plus the highest salary, but in this case familiarity with the Brewers organization trumped anything any other club could offer, much to the other contenders’ chagrin. In my opinion, Milwaukee has the best support system for Jeremy, and that’s not something that any other club could compete with. Add in the opportunity to reach the majors fairly quickly if he plays well, plus the club’s financial fairness, and the decision was clear.
Before deciding on which club to sign with, we did narrow down our list of teams to the three or so that fit Jeremy best. Given the totality of the circumstances, Jeremy and I felt that the Brewers were the best fit for him on and off the field, and they offered another thing that we craved: stability.
There was also a genuine sense of unfinished business in Milwaukee. When he was traded in 2010 in the Zack Greinke deal, Jeremy was the last player to be named, and I know Milwaukee did not want to lose him. So the chance to go back to the team that drafted him and knows him, with whom he won a minor league player of the year award and his first MLB game, was just too much to pass up. I cannot stress enough how much it meant to be reunited with the Brewers front office staff—men like Reid Nichols, Tony Diggs, Doug Melvin and Gord Ash. These men all stood by Jeremy during the darkest periods of his career and never lost faith in him or turned their back on him.
For anyone who’s unaware of Jeremy’s struggles off the field, please Google the subject, since I as his agent can’t get into that topic out of respect for the player. I think most readers here know what the issues he faced with Milwaukee were, and that is part of why he wanted to be reunited with the club. The men I’ve already mentioned—especially Reid Nichols and Gord Ash—all stuck by his side and allowed him to continue his career when they easily could have turned their back on him. That, plus the fact that four years later the club wanted to reacquire Jeremy in spite of his off-the-field hiccups, certainly engendered a lot of loyalty on our end.
Despite all the benefits Milwaukee offered, it was an incredibly hard choice for Jeremy to make, and had it been anyone else, that player likely would have signed elsewhere. Jeremy almost did, but in the end he decided that there was no place like home.
Another intriguing possibility was heading overseas. Japan was a legitimate option, where Jeremy could have made significant money. Korea has changed their rules to allow more foreign players and abolished their salary cap in hopes of competing against Japan for international talent. I feel that Jeremy is too young to uproot his family and change cultures while he still has a bright future in the US thanks to his skillset and who he is as a person. He could have taken the instant payday and run, but I think it says something about his desire to chase his dream that he turned down the huge payday and took a pay cut by electing free agency.
Saying no to front-office officials with whom you have a relationship is hard, but agents have a responsibility to do what is in their client’s best interests. In the end, though, the client always has the final say, and I think that given the circumstances, Jeremy made a good decision for himself and his family. He has a shot at redemption in the truest sense of the word, but as always, time will tell.