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.