License To Deal
By Jerry Crasnick
In "License To Deal: A Year in the Life of a Maverick Baseball Agent", longtime Baseball America columnist Jerry Crasnick chronicles the life and career of Matt Sosnick, who runs an upstart baseball agency with his partner, Paul Cobbe. Their story also serves as a jumping-off point for a review of the history of baseball agents. In this exclusive excerpt, Crasnick takes us through draft day 2004 from a different point of view: that of the agent:
Shortly before 10 a.m., Paul punches up the Internet broadcast of the draft on MLB.com, and it’s click-your-seatbelt time:
10:05 a.m. The 30-team roll call is complete, and Mike Wickham, San Diego’s assistant scouting director, announces the Padres have selected Matthew Bush, a high school shortstop from Mission Bay, Calif., with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft. It’s not exactly a state secret. Hours earlier, Baseball America’s Website posted a story with the headline “Bushwhacked,” reporting how the Padres and Matt Bush agreed on a predraft deal for a $3.1 million signing bonus. Predraft deals are supposedly verboten under baseball rules, but they’re commonplace among teams who want to ensure that if they draft a player, he might actually play for them.
10:14 Scott Boras has two crown jewels in this year’s draft: Jered Weaver, a pitcher from Long Beach State and the younger brother of Dodgers pitcher Jeff; and J. D. Drew’s little brother Stephen, a shortstop from Florida State. The Rangers pass on both players to select Thomas Diamond, a pitcher from the University of New Orleans, and the Dallas media applaud the pick as evidence that the Rangers are trying to break Boras’ hypnotic spell over Tom Hicks.
10:17 The Angels select Weaver with the 12th pick in the draft, and the Diamondbacks, whose financial problems are well-known in the industry, can’t resist the temptation to pick Drew at No. 15. Mike Rizzo, Arizona's scouting director, will have the unenviable task of spending a long, hot summer (and long, cold winter) haggling with Boras over Stephen Drew. He didn’t exactly consider it a jaw-dropper that 14 clubs passed on Drew.
“The Padres can spin it any way they want to spin it,” Rizzo says. “But if I have the first pick on the playground, I’m picking Stephen Drew over Matt Bush 100 out of 100 times. If I’m going to pick a guy to win the championship, I’ll pick Stephen Drew over Matt Bush and about 13 of the 14 guys that went before Stephen.”
Mike Rizzo feels this way a week before Matt Bush makes national headlines for sneaking into a bar in Peoria, Ariz., getting nabbed for being underage, and biting the bouncer on his way out the door.
10:22 Sosnick’s cell phone rings and it’s Mark Newman, senior vice president of baseball operations for the Yankees. Newman, a former college baseball coach with a law degree, has drifted in and out of George Steinbrenner’s favor, but he is currently back in the mix and playing a central role in the Yankees’ draft.
The Yankees received two compensatory draft picks when the Padres signed David Wells as a free agent, and according to Newman, they’re interested in using one of the picks on Sosnick advisee Jeff Marquez.
There’s a fine distinction here; Matt wants Marquez to go No. 41, as the final supplemental first-round pick, rather than with the 42nd pick, which kicks off the second round, because it will mean something to Jeff Marquez and his family. And truthfully, it’s not bad for Matt’s ego or the Sosnick-Cobbe agency’s prestige to say that they represent a first-rounder with the Yankees. Matt tells Newman he’ll give the Yankees a $25,000 break on the price if New York takes Marquez at 41.
10:40 The draft is breaking down according to form, and Paul Cobbe takes it as a good sign. “When you’ve got surprises, that’s when a kid like Marquez gets screwed,” he says.
10:45 It’s Mark Newman on the phone again. New York likes Marquez but won’t draft him without assurances that he’ll sign. The Yankees have made a habit of loading up on big-name superstars in recent years and treating the draft like an afterthought, but they’re not about to squander this high of a pick.
Now all that’s left is settling on a figure. The advent of “slot money,” a system of forced financial certainty decreed by the commissioner’s office, has all but removed the art of negotiation from the process. The scouting director who wants to pay above slot must get approval from his general manager and possibly his owner, then outline his reasoning with a representative from commissioner Bud Selig’s office, who probably will try to dissuade the owner from spending the money. Baseball teams can’t share information when it comes to free agents, but they get away with price-fixing in the draft because amateur players aren’t represented by the union.
But Matt Sosnick isn’t trying to revolutionize the draft or change the world; all he wants is to meet the Yankees halfway on Jeff Marquez. Cell phone in hand, Matt grabs the list of 2003 signing bonuses and scrolls to No. 41: San Diego gave Daniel Moore, a North Carolina pitcher, $800,000 in that spot the previous season.
“How about $800,000?’’ Sosnick asks Newman.
“How about $775,000?’’ Newman responds.
Matt asks for $790,000, and when Newman suggests splitting the difference, Matt laughs. “Come on,” he says, and they agree on the $790,000 figure. The Yankees will kick in an additional $60,000 so Jeff can take college classes at a later date and pursue a career in architecture if he fails to make it in baseball.
Later, Matt explains that the actual contract negotiation is “a zero thing,” the most meaningless part of the process. What counts is product placement. By working the phones and networking with scouting directors and talent evaluators, Matt has determined that the Dodgers and Yankees are the only teams with serious interest in Jeff Marquez. If he pushes too hard and New York passes at 41 and 42, there’s a chance that Marquez could slip to Los Angeles in the 58th spot. The Dodgers later select Louisiana high school pitcher Blake Johnson with that pick and give him $600,000.
So by negotiating reasonably and quickly, Matt appears to have made Jeff Marquez and his family an additional $190,000. If Matt shortchanged the 41st slot a few thousand bucks, he considers that a small price to pay.
10:56 The Yankees go through the formality of selecting Jeff Marquez.
11:34 The third round is under way, and Mark Newman calls and says New York has an interest in Grant Hansen, the 6-foot-6 pitcher from Oklahoma City. The Yankees have two players ranked ahead of Hansen. But if both go off the board, they’ll take him.
11:39 Toronto picks Sosnick client Danny Hill, a pitcher out of Missouri, 87th overall. Hill stands 5-foot-11, 202 pounds--squatty for a righthander--and is coming off a mediocre college season. But he’s a senior with no college eligibility left and the Blue Jays, always on the lookout for ways to save money, figure they can sign him cheaply and have a serviceable middle reliever down the road.
In 2003, Kansas City drafted college seniors with five consecutive picks and gave each a $1,000 bonus. That’s the hazard of having no leverage. When Toronto scouting director John Lalonde agrees to give Hill a $285,000 bonus--about 70 percent of slot--Matt is ecstatic.
11:40 Cory Dunlap, a graduate of Encinal High, Dontrelle’s alma mater, unexpectedly goes to Los Angeles with the 88th pick. His selection creates a stir in the room, because the Baseball America draft projections and the scouting buzz have overlooked him. Does he have an adviser? Jason Hoffman, through his local connections, is familiar with Cory Dunlap. He’ll try to hunt down the phone number for Dunlap’s mother, in the hopes that a connection can be made before the vultures descend.
11:41 The White Sox, in a surprise, select Hansen with the 89th pick before the Yankees can grab him. Matt and Toby are on the phone with Grant and his mother, Diane, within seconds.
“I’d like to take the credit,” Sosnick says. “But this is totally Toby networking it out with the teams.”
After congratulating Grant and telling him how proud he is, Toby touches base with Diane. “Grant’s mom is a basket case,” he says, returning to the room. “She’s bawling her eyes out.”
11:57 Matt talks to Dunlap’s mother, Clovis Burton, and learns that the family has yet to pick an adviser. Clovis has, however, heard good things about Matt through his affiliation with Dontrelle Willis. And by the way, what’s his fee?
“Whatever anybody else is charging, we’re 1 percent lower,” Matt says.
12:02 p.m. Time to summon the cavalry. Matt gets on the phone with Dontrelle to see if his star client can’t apply some World Series cachet to persuade young Cory to enlist with the Sosnick-Cobbe agency.
“Bitch, that guy is yours!’’ Dontrelle says, laughing. “He used to hang around my house and eat my scraps!’’
12:30 The group breaks for lunch--a bag of cheeseburgers via delivery boy. Toby is mortified to discover that the burger joint doesn’t serve fries.
12:50 Dontrelle calls back and tells Matt the details of his conversation with Dunlap’s mother. “I know you guys are buying drinks and cooking up fried chicken, but when you’re done, call me back so I can whisper in your ear about my agent,” Dontrelle tells her.
1:03 Tommy Lasorda, former Dodgers manager, assumes the ceremonial role of announcing the team’s draft picks. When he proclaims that a player hails from the “great state of California,” eyes roll in the Sosnick war room. Parliamentary declarations have been made with less bombast.
1:20 Matt receives a call from Boston scouting director David Chadd. The Red Sox are interested in Ryan Phillips, a pitcher from Barton Community College in Kansas. They’d like to take him in the 11th round. But it’s clear that 11th-round money won’t be enough to convince him to sign. So what’s it going to take? Matt says he’ll find out for sure.
1:45 The Red Sox call back. They’d like to sign Ryan Phillips for $100,000, but indications are they’d stretch it to $155,000--the equivalent of a fifth-round bonus--plus money for college tuition.
1:52 The daily double has come in: Matt Sosnick is frantically working two cell phones at once. The Red Sox are at the other end of one phone, and a nervous Ryan Phillips is on the other.
“Is it your dream to play professional baseball?’’ Matt asks Ryan a few minutes later, “because you would have to have tremendous balls not to do this.’’
2:08 Boston selects Phillips with the 335th overall pick and will pay him $155,000 plus money toward college, about four times what an 11th-rounder typically might fetch. Matt holds the telephone up to the computer speaker so that Ryan and his father can hear a Red Sox official announce the pick on MLB.com.
2:48 Matt calls Orioles scouting director Tony DeMacio and tells him that the Sosnick-Cobbe agency has four players left on the board: Cale Iorg, Tyler Beranek, Michigan pitcher Derek Feldkamp, and Tennessee high school catcher Chris Kirkland. Matt has a proven history of working well with DeMacio, but good faith only counts for so much on draft day. Sorry, DeMacio tells him, but the Orioles aren’t interested.
2:51 David Chadd of the Red Sox says the same thing.
2:53 Atlanta scouting director Roy Clark doesn’t answer his phone. “Roy Clark is giving me no love,” Matt says, impatiently.
3:00 John Mirabelli of the Indians doesn’t seem interested, either.
3:05 Sosnick calls Joyce Guy-Harris and asks if she can put in a recruiting call to Cory Dunlap’s mother on his behalf.
“If I have Dontrelle and his mother call and recommend me and I don’t get the kid, I have a problem,’’ Matt says.
3:10 Matt, on the phone with a scouting director, snaps when he asks Toby for the lowest number that Tyler Beranek will accept as a bonus and Toby struggles for a definitive answer. “Just give me the f---ing number!” Matt shouts.
3:20 Matt arranges dinner for tomorrow night with Jeff Marquez’ parents in Burlingame. “Your kid is very rich,” he tells them, then shares his negotiating strategy. “It came down to creating the thought that if the Yankees didn’t pick him, they weren’t gonna get another chance,” he says.
3:26 Matt gets on the phone with Alex Slattery, the White Sox area scout, and talks about doing a quick deal for Grant Hansen. “Let’s make this a loving negotiation,” he says. “I’m tired.”
3:33 The Braves complete the first day of the draft by selecting Brad Emaus, a high school shortstop out of Sharpsburg, Ga. He’s the 551st player selected, and it’s taken 30 teams a total of 5 hours, 33 minutes to choose them. That’s an average of 1.65 dreams fulfilled per minute.
For the adviser, of course, the work has not ended, will not end, never ends. There are joyful parents to be congratulated and anxious parents to be cajoled or consoled. Matt speaks with Grant Hansen’s mother again and tells her to make sure to thank the area scout, Slattery, who pushed so hard for the White Sox to draft Grant.
Chris Kirkland, a good-field, no-hit high school catcher from Tennessee, is still on the board, and his father is getting edgy. The consensus is that Kirkland will be best served playing college ball at Alabama, where his bat will have a chance to catch up with his defense. If a big league team picks him after his junior year, when he’s eligible to re-enter the draft, Matt hopes the family will still use Sosnick and Cobbe as advisers.
5:20 Matt talks to Derek Feldkamp, the Michigan pitcher who has also gone undrafted on day one. Matt suspects that Derek’s college coach might have undermined the kid’s draft prospects by putting out a bad buzz with the scouts. But they agree that it’s probably best for Derek to return to school for another year.
6:50 While Matt watches the Tampa Bay-Calgary Stanley Cup final on his big-screen TV and takes a break with a tin platter of takeout fettuccine, the silence in the next room is interrupted by the hum of a fax machine: The White Sox have agreed to pay Grant Hansen $430,000, plus four semesters of college at $6,000 a semester.
Throw in Ryan Phillips’ bonus, a cut of the $65,000 bonus the group negotiated for Aaron Mathews as a 19th rounder with Toronto, and commissions for a handful of middle-round picks, and Sosnick and Cobbe generated about $100,000 in income from the first day of the 2004 draft. That sounds great, Matt says, until you realize that they probably spent $70,000 for Toby Trotter’s salary and travel costs in the past year.