After sleeping on it and thinking some more, here's my slightly more thoughtful take on the Crow debacle.
First, if you're looking for winners, there really aren't very many, except maybe the Mets and the Phillies.
The Nationals are big losers. Assigning blame is a separate question, but there's clearly no way this is a good thing for us. The money involved is inconsequential in the economics of MLB, and the 10 pick next year will never have as much value as the 9th pick this year. It's one pick lower, and you have to discount for the one-year wait to get your hands on a good player. Moreover, Crow on talent was probably more of a top-five pick who slid to us (ironically) because of signability. So without question, we are further away from the arrival of The First Great Nationals Team than we were 24 hours ago.
Aaron Crow is also clearly a loser. It's a huge risk for him to have to play independent league ball and risk injury, and he's now one year further from arbitration and free agency. He needs 3 years of service time to get up in the $5-6m range in salary, and 6 years before he can really cash in on the free market. At best, he just lost a year of prime earning. At worst, if he gets hurt, he just passed on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set up himself and his family for life.
The Hendricks agency is also a big loser. The whole point of hiring an agent is to make sure that your interests are protected. This is one of the more botched negotiations I can remember, and if you are a player you have to hold your agent accountable. If I was a talented 21-year-old, Randy Hendricks is about the last guy in the world I'd want representing me.
If you are looking to cast blame, there's blame to be shared by many. A debacle like this can't happen without what seems like almost purposeful incompetence by virtually everyone involved.
For the Nationals, the team struck an extremely aggressive posture from the start, publicly saying over and over that they team wouldn't go over slot, period. Mark Lerner said it. Stan Kasten said it. Jim Bowden said it. As late as yesterday afternoon, reports were coming out that the team was sticking by it's hard-line "slot or bust" position. This is a dangerous game, because when you open negotiations with an unreasonably hard-line position, it pushes your opponent to do the same.
That said, there's no reason necessarily for the team not to do this, up to a point. As I've written before, the player has almost no leverage whatsoever. The team controls his future as a major leaguer almost totally, and if he wants to be a major league baseball player, he needs to basically accede to the team's demands or else do something else for a year, which as I said is a really, really undesirable bad plan B for the player.
By playing hardball like this, the team can reasonably expect to save some money. They can get the player to accept a slightly lower deal, maybe a million one way or another, and it also chips away at the team's growing rep as a team that will always go way over slot, as long as you hold out long enough. I don't blame the team for playing chicken for a while to push these imperatives.
However, the team needs to come back from the ledge with plenty of time to make sure they don't just flat-out lose the player. The reason is that Crow is a rare talent. He isn't a 2nd or 3rd round pick like Sean Black. Top picks like Crow have a success rate in MLB that is better than just about any other avenue of player acquisition, other than maybe blockbuster type-A free agents. And as you know, those guys cost a lot more, and Our Washington Nationals have taken it off the table.
Baseball Prospectus did a lengthy study a couple years ago measuring the value of draft picks, and without going into the details, one of their prime conclusions is that top picks (especially the #1 and 2 overall, but not only) have tremendous value, but that the real premium value is really contained to the top 5, maybe 10 picks. This chart is their effort to show the long-term value of first-round picks (without getting into detail, this shows you the number of additional wins a typical player drafted at each position will give you over 15 years--read the study if you want to look at this in more detail):
You will notice that the line is really high up there around #1 and 2, and then falls pretty fast as you get out of the first ten, and then from the 25th pick to the third round it's all kinda similar. But those top top picks, you're dealing with a different animal. Crow was the 9th pick, arguably more of a 5th pick talent.
Since the Nationals arrived in Washington, DC, Crow and Ryan Zimmerman are really the only players we've had an opportunity to acquire who have this much value. We mostly haven't had the trade chips to acquire players like this, and we won't spend the money for premium free agents.
Now let's look at the money here. There are differing accounts from the team and Hendricks, but let's assume the team is telling the truth, and we offered $3.5m and a major league deal, and Crow wanted $4.4m. That means we could have had him under team control at the major league minimum through at least the 2011 season (assuming he was basically in the the majors from Opening Day, 2009), and more realistically through 2012 or maybe even 2013, if it took him a couple years to make the bigs. Without getting into the details, players basically earn the minimum, around $400k, no questions asked, for their first three years in the big leagues.
So most likely, we would have had Crow for around 4 years (counting some time in the minors) for around $420 a year, plus the $4.4m bonus. That's 4 years for $6.08m, or $1.52m a year. You can see all the Nationals' 2008 player salaries here, but basically we're talking about Rob Mackowiak money. It's chump change for a premium talent. When you look at the overall economics of MLB, the team walked away from a steal. Even if we had completely caved to his most completely unreasonable demands, we wouldn't have been paying him much more than Wily Mo Pena money over this period of time. There's no chance he could have been as expensive as Lopez or Lo Duca, two guys we just cut for nothing.
In short, while there's little downside to playing chicken for a while, there's huge downside for actually going over the cliff. The goal of the negotiation is to go as close as possible to that edge without going over.
So back to the question of blame, for the Nationals, it's Bowden's job more than anyone else's to make sure that the negotiations don't go over that cliff. He just can't let the situation crater because of a lack of communication or running out of time. I don't care if the kid locked himself in a compound in Waco with an armory full of weapons demanding heaven and earth, the team has to have enough negotiating finesse and savvy not to allow the situation to fall apart like this.
Kasten and Lerner deserve blame too though. They pushed the hardball stance, and they sent a guy to conduct a hardball negotiation who wasn't up to the task. I know from my job in politics that you can't try to execute a sophisticated, high-risk negotiating strategy if your lobbyist doesn't have the skill, heft, and experience to pull it off. If you don't have that firepower, you have to take the safer path, even if it means getting a slightly less good deal.
That doesn't mean the agent isn't at fault also. He is--big time. I think that the team is more at fault for creating the high stakes game of chicken in the first place--they've been negotiating in public for weeks, and the Crow camp didn't say a word until this week. But the demands of the Crow side--reportedly $8-9 million--were never realistic, and Crow's side seemed to eagerly embrace the escalation at the endgame, only coming down to $4.4m in the waning minutes. Hendricks clearly overplayed his hand and left his client in a much, much worse situation.
And the kid is at fault too. At some point, he needs to take control of his life and tell his agent, "look, just make a deal. Let's not be dumb." It's possible that he's young, arrogant, thinks he's invincible, and just decided that he's above risk. Or he could just be a dumb jock who had no idea what was going on around him. Either seems easy to imagine.
But for me as a Nationals fan, I take very little solace knowing that the player and the agent share blame. I'm rooting for my team to do well. I want my team to be a well run, winning organization. I couldn't care less about the Hendricks agency, and if we got pulled down to their level, shame on us.
When I was a Bulls fan in the 90s, we were proud of the fact that we were able to make Dennis Rodman work when no one else could. We knew Rodman was a wack-job, but that wasn't the point. The Bulls--MJ, Phil, et. al.--were skilled enough to get the best out of a challenging but hugely talented gut. I want a team like that, with leadership that leads. I want at team that is better, smarter, and more effective than the crappiest agent and the least mature 21-year-old out there. Is that so much to ask?
But right now we don't have that. The best we can say about our team is, "yeah, our guy screwed up royally, but their guy did too. Our GM is no more of a screw-up than Crow's agent." So I think it's fair to put primary blame on Bowden. Not all the blame, but primary. He was the lead negotiator in a negotiation that went completely, terribly haywire.
Now, we can only hope that we'll strike gold with the first and tenth picks next year and that in retrospect maybe it'll all work out for us. But I would feel a lot more confident about the possibility of that happening if we had someone else making the picks and leading the negotiations next time around.