Sunday, August 17, 2008

If Whining and Finger-Pointing Was an Olympic Event, the Nationals Would Be Michael Phelps

Today’s Post has some more information, mostly from the team, about how the Crow negotiations fell apart. The team, now in full-fledged butt-covering mode, would have you believe that they’re the unwitting victims of a completely irrational, non-communicative negotiating non-partner.

Don’t believe it.

I obviously am not an insider, and I wasn’t cc-ed on the emails between Bowden and the Hendricks agency, but I do have some experience with negotiations, and it seems pretty obvious what was going on.

By refusing to talk by phone, tour the stadium, or make an initial offer, the player’s people were trying to drive up the team’s initial bid before starting earnest negotiations. To get Crow to DC or the agent on the phone, all the team needed to do is increase their opening bid.

Again, keep in mind that the player has almost no leverage in these talks. Knowing that the team that drafted him owns his exclusive rights as a major league baseball player, the player’s only option is to walk away from the riches and fame of MLB for a year, risk injury, and delay his progress toward the big bucks of salary arbitration and free agency.

But the player doesn’t have zero leverage. One thing they can do is refuse direct talks until the team establishes an acceptable floor. Agreeing to direct talks is in itself a concession, and if the Crow people entered into talks while the Nationals’ initial slot offering was the only item on the table, that would in itself be a concession. (This is why people criticized Obama when he seemed to be saying that he would meet with Iran without preconditions. Yes, I know, Obama says he never really said that, that’s beside the point.)

All through the weeks leading up to the signing deadline, we are now told, the team basically made no change to their initial slot bid. First the team offered $2.1 million, then ‘increased’ their offer to $2.2 million, then $2.25 million. What, not $2.24 million and 99 cents?

Publicly, the team was reiterating this low-ball position. When Mark Lerner was asked whether he’d consider an above-slot deal, he said he pay over slot for only certain special players. He mentioned Jack McGeary, but not Aaron Crow, and then stated flatly that the team would be fine just moving on and taking the 10th pick next year.

Kasten said on August 5 that he expected the player to accept similar deals to what Ross Detwiler, Chad Cordero, and Ryan Zimmerman got, not acknowledging a) inflation, b) that Detwiler, Zimmerman, and Cordero accepted those low-ball deals only because they were in the same zero-leverage posture that Crow was in, and b) that Crow was a higher pick than Cordero and arguably a better player than all three. When he says, "it's between No. 10 this year ($2.07 million) and what Detwiler's contract was ($2.15 million). That's the appropriate value. It's fairly easy to figure out," that’s laying out a hard-line posture with basically no wiggle room.

When the team complains that Crow’s side didn’t make an offer of their own until late, they’re feigning naivete. Once the player puts a number on the table, that limits the range of negotiations. It’s in the interests of the player to drive up the team’s position before setting an upper limit for talks.

But finally, on Tuesday night, with the team still apparently sticking with their non-starter opening bid, the Crow side finally responded with a non-starter of their own: $9 million.

Of course, $9 million is a ridiculous number, but only in the context of a ‘market’ where no other buyers are allowed to bid. In the context of the economics of MLB, even $9 million is a low number for a premium pitcher. When you factor in that the player will be getting no more than the league minimum salary for probably 4, maybe 5 years, the $9 million still only puts Crow in the annual earning league of a Wily Mo Pena. As I’ve said, the final offer the Nats made would have put Crow in the annual salary range of a Rob Mackowiak. Yes, it’s up front money, which is more valuable, but still, it’s not close to “market value,” if the market was actually allowed to operate. Think of it this way—would you trade Aaron Crow for Wily Mo Pena or Rob Mackowiak? Of course not. So why is it ridiculous to pay him accordingly?

Of course, owners pay less because they can get away with it. But all this “woe is me, the Nationals are such victims being bullied by this big bad agent” is just insulting to our intelligence.

When Bowden says, “It ended up being all emails. We kept trying to engage in discussion,” and Rizzo says, “They wouldn’t even speak by phone,” they are both feigning ignorance. What they should say is, “We never got to real negotiations until the absolute very last minute because both sides overplayed our hands in the preliminary negotiations. It was a debacle for both sides, and we need to learn lessons from this.”

It’s also hilarious to me listening to Bowden call for a “hard” slot system, or a system where the owners would unilaterally mandate a set bonus for every new player entering the league across the board. Their salaries are already essentially capped for three years, and for years 4-6 players can only contest their salaries through an arbitrator who still won’t give them market value. Most major league players never play long enough to even make it that far.

So as if having total control over the player for 3-4 years isn’t enough, JimBo seems to think he should own the player pretty much for life. It’s like he was trying to kill a fly with a fly-swatter, a can of Raid, and a sledge-hammer, but somehow the fly still got away, so now he says he needs a nuclear warhead.

Finally, it’s also occurred to me that perhaps the Crow side over the course of the summer started to see the Nationals as simply a bad franchise, that there would be some plus to getting away from us. Signing on the dotted line means he is marrying this franchise for the next 6, 7, or maybe 8 years. Watching this summer unfold—insulting Cordero, the FBI investigation, suing the city, the ratings, the losing … You have to wonder, if you’re the player watching all this, and at the same time you’re getting treated in a pretty hardball way, is this a franchise you really want to be married to? Will they take your long-term interests to heart in player development? What happens if you get hurt? How will you be treated then?

If in fact that kind of thinking crept into the Crow side at all (and no one’s said it, this is pure speculation), I think that would be unfortunate and unfair. I don’t think the Nationals are a bad organization. I think we’ve made some bad decisions and committed some PR blunders. And we’ve had some bad luck. But I could see how someone who knew nothing about the Nationals, was drafted in June, and watched this team only for the last two months would be spooked.

9 comments:

Carl Williams said...

Thank you.

ben said...

I gotta disagree with most of this. I think that you really hit on what was going on only in the last portion of the post: Crow didn't want to marry this dysfunctional, losing organization unless he was getting ridiculous money.

I think both sides overplayed their hands, yes - but really, that starting point is ludicrous given the deals given other players in this draft. The fact that Hendricks only went down to $4.4 million right at the end shows that they didn't really want a deal. My point is this: If they had wanted a deal, they would've gone down to $4.4 million a week ago.

So, yes, the Nats are cheap - but I think what was really going on here was that Crow told Hendricks he didn't want to come to a franchise that looks like it's going to be a perennial 4th or 5th place finisher unless he got bank. And you elide right over the MRI thing, which frankly raises the red flag right off the bat.

Steven said...

@Ben--

You could say the same thing about the Nationals, that if the team really wanted a deal that they would have gone up to 3.5 million a week ago.

The point is that the team would have you believe that the agent was some irrational nut who would only communicate via email and refused to negotiate at all. That's BS. Their error, the same as the team's, is that they didn't start talking turkey till it was too late. They played a risky game of chicken, and neither side really thought the other side would drive off the cliff, and they both did. It was a delicate negotiation that required intelligence and maturity and it was allowed to devolve into a dick measuring contest. Just a complete incompetent bungling on both ends.

There's no way either the player or the team can be happy over this or would really in retrospect defend falling on their swords over 700-900k. That's why the team isn't trying to defend their 'decision.' They aren't even saying "4.4 million is unreasonable, but 3.5 is ok," because that's not credible. You're wrong that the team is cheap in this situation. The team didn't lose Crow because the Lerners or Kasten insisted on saving the 700k. They lost Crow because the negotiation was bungled. So now they're trying to convince you that there was only one incompetent fuck up in this situation, and that none of it was their fault. But had the team done their job right, Crow would be a National right now. This is Cordero part 2. Simple, easy player management bungled because the guy in charge of the negotiation is not up to the job.

The MRI was just one more thing that got lost in the game of chicken. Crow's side was overplaying their bluff and lost the oppy for a major league deal because of it.

Anonymous said...

Another concern to have is the impact this will have on next years draft. While the Nats think they have done something noble by sticking to their guns, good luck negiotiating next year. Should they get the #1 pick and pick Stromberg, be ready to deal with Boras and demands of $10-12 million. The Nats will have zero leverage in dealing with signing either the #1 or #9A picks. The agents whose players are selected their will be licking their chops because they can ask for ridiculous (according to the Nats) amounts and they will almost have to agree to them. Could you imagine if they didnt sign one of those guys or passed on Stromsberg because they wont want to pay $10 million? Would not want to be on the Nats side in those negiotiations.

Steven said...

The Nationals will still have a ton of leverage with Strasburg. The have the same position with him that they have over Crow. Strasburg has to accept whatever he is offered or risk sitting out of MLB for a year, pushing back his progress towards FA for a year, all that. There's the 1-year injury risk that everyone's focused on, but really if he gets hurt anywhere along the line in his next 5-6 years it will hurt his chances in FA. Look at Cordero and how much earning he lost in FA by tearing his labrum. Imagine if that injury happens to Crow one year from FA. Then this little meltdown will end up costing him potentially tens of millions.

You're right that the Crow situation I think generally reflects badly on the team and weakens our hand in many negotiations. But draft picks still basically take what they are given and not a fraction of their market value. If Strasburg arrived as an FA next year, he'd command (guessing out of my butt) 5-6 years and over 100 million. At most we'll pay him 1/10 of that.

Steven said...

@anon--but you are right that there will be more pressure on the Nats to sign next year, if nothing else to save face. But STrasburg is reported to be one of the top picks in several years, and if they don't sign 9A they lose that pick--you can't get the compensatory pick twice. So the Nats will pay more next time, no doubt.

That's why there's no argument coming from the team defending he actual decision to not sign Crow. It's not credible to say that they were *right* to walk away over 700k. Not from a baseball perspective, not from a business perspective, not long term nor short. It's just bad bad bad. the only way it works out is if somehow we luck out and strike gold with 9A next year and/or Crow gets hurt or something.

All they can do now is demonize the agent and portray themselves as the victim. It's insulting to our intelligence that they are even trying, but judging by some of the message boards, some fans are buying it.

Mike said...

I think you can make the case that Crow was thought of in higher regard than Detwiler, but he wasn't picked higher than Detwiler was.

Interestingly enough, there was an article in the Pittsburgh paper yesterday with this about Pedro Alvarez:

"Boras' asking price for months had been a major league contract worth $9.5 million"

Sound familiar?

I think the Nationals will sign Strasburg when and if the time comes. I'd guess that it will take an MLB deal to get it done, but by all accounts, Strasburg should come fast. The real test to me will be to see them not make it drag out until the deadline.

Steven said...

Hm. I misremembered Detwiler's draft spot. Oh well. Thanks for the catch.

missy said...
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