Tucked in between the thrilling events of my day with Jim at ESPN Zone on Friday was a briefer but just as revealing conversation with Stan Kasten.
I had a lot of questions for him (e.g., "If the stadium isn't substantially finished, shouldn't my ticket be substantially free?), but I only had time to hit on the thing I care about most, Aaron Crow. I wanted to hear from him how it could possibly be in the best interests of the team from either a business or baseball perspective to walk away from Crow over $900,000--couch cushion change in the economics of MLB.
Now I know a lot of folks have decided that the Lerners and Kasten are just a bunch of cheapskates and that this is just one more example of that. But the thing that didn't add up for me is that even if you're just looking at it as a total skin-flint owner, there's no way the team comes out saving money here.
Look at it. First, someone will have to pitch next year, and Crow's roster spot will be filled most likely by a free agent or someone arbitration-eligible like Tim Redding. Even if they call up Jordan Zimmermann (and making him pitch 200 innings wire to wire isn't an option, right!?!), they need at least one more guy because Odalis Perez is a free agent. The costs of that fill-in free agent alone could easily wipe out all or most of the $4.4 million in savings.
Then also remember that when we draft 9a next year, we'll be facing a negotiation with far less leverage than with Crow because if we don't sign that pick next year, there's no compensation. So while all the talk of Crow--who had no option whatsoever but to risk injury in the Independent League for a year--holding the team "ransom" is risible, next year's 9a actually will kinda be able to put a gun to the team's head and make demands.
And also signing bonuses are rising way way faster than inflation. In 2007, picks 1-10 signed for a cumulative $31.325 million. This year, even with Crow getting nothing, numbers 1-10 signed for a total of $39.32 million.
And I'm not even factoring in the lost revenue from fan disinterest, season ticket holders throwing in the towel, reduced gate revenue, etc. Losing Crow was a body-blow to the hopes of the dwindling fan base. And wins have real economic value, and it could cost the team millions upon millions to wait one additional year to get better.
Some people have talked about how the Nationals need to avoid getting a reputation for caving in, and that this rep could cost them money down the road. Perhaps that's a factor for the later rounds, but the upward trend in bonuses among the top ten picks is overwhelming what any one team's rep might be. As Stan quoted to me at the ESPN Zone, in 2007, just Matt Wieters got $6 mil. This year, four guys did. Next year? Who knows. Maybe all ten will. God knows MLB has the money.
So I've racked my brain on this, and there's just no way that this team saves money by not signing Crow at $4.4 million. The "Kasten/Lerner is a cheap bastard" explanation doesn't make sense. And that's what Stan said in his interview with Nats320 last month--"It’s not a money savings. We need to disabuse people of that notion. This was not done for money. We still have that pick and we still have to sign that pick--10 months from now. So, there is not money savings here."
That's why I had concluded that the most likely explanation is that this was just a bungled negotiation. Bowden, hothead that he is (and I can now say first hand, he has a bit of a temper), allowed a delicate negotiation to become a dick-measuring contest and the whole thing devolved. It's the only plausible thing I could think of.
So all that was on my mind when I said to Stan, "Now honestly, Stan, wasn't it a mistake not to sign Aaron Crow at $4.4 million?"
"No, absolutely not," he said. "Don't get me started! I've been at this a long time. We offered a fair amount. Ross Detwiler got $2.1 million."
"Yes, I know," I cut in. "But that was last year. Bonuses are higher now."
"Right! Because agents are manipulating the system. Just because one agent decides he's going to hold everyone hostage doesn't mean we're just going to give him whatever he wants."
"But wait," I said. "They're just representing their clients trying to get the best deal they can. If you had to bid against the Red Sox and the Yankees in a free market you'd..."
Stan interrupted, "This is not a market. This is a draft." The way he said the word "draft" suggested to me that he meant, like, literally a draft, like conscription. He continued, "It's to ensure competitive balance, that's the point."
We chatted a little more, and Stan made it clear that at midnight he was the guy in the room running the negotiation and that he was the one who made the call to walk away over the $900,000.
So I was wrong. Bowden may also have bungled the negotiation, alienated Randy Hendricks, generally poisoned the well. But in the endgame, when it came down to that last 900k, it was Kasten who walked away. And he did it not to save money, not because it will help us win games, not because it's good for the Nationals really at all. His decision was, it would appear, ideological.
Stan, based on what he said Friday, believes that players when they come into the league should have basically no rights, period. Draftees should play when and where they're told for whatever amount of money he deems appropriate. The slot system was created out of whole cloth by the owners and asserted unilaterally as the new fair. And that's evidently how labor rights should work in Stan's world.
In the Nats320 interview, Stan disingenuously said this whole system came about after lengthy negotiations with the players' union. He said, "This is what the system was designed to do as negotiated with the players. Expressly for this purpose, so some errant agent could not come in and try to hold some one up (for ransom) at the top of the draft."
The reason this is disingenuous is because MLBPA doesn't represent amateur ballplayers in the draft like Aaron Crow. MLBPA could give a crap about Aaron Crow; he's not a union member. Aaron Crow didn't agree to this system of legal semi-conscription, and it's intellectually dishonest to present it like the player is somehow breaking his end of the bargain by even raising his hand and asking to discuss the situation.
Frankly the whole concept of a draft where corporations can divvy up all the hottest college grads and deny them the right to choose their own workplace of choice seems downright un-American to me. Imagine if all the top law firms or I-banks did that with the law school and MBA grads.
Clearly, you have to have some system for maintaining competitive balance and order, I agree, but the player isn't a conscript. No other sport has this system where the player has essentially no rights for the first three or more years of his pro career.
All this clearly would seem like just so much pinko claptrap to Stan. But here's something he might understand: his stubborn adherence to an abstract anti-worker principle is going to cost him money. Principles don't pay the bills. Principles don't pay for private jets or bottles of Dom Perignon. He's never going to bust the union, and if he keeps it up, he might just inspire the amateurs to find their own Marvin Miller.
Yeah, the Lerners and Kasten are super-rich, and I'm sure they want for very little. But it must gall them to know that because they walked away from Aaron Crow over a piddling $900k, they're going to be a little teeny bit less rich.