Made out for years by owners and fans as the central villain of all things financial, super agent Scott Boras has taken an even more visible place over the last two years of tumult. Sure, I find many of his analogies and puns eye-rolling, and I am cautious about anything that centers the top-tier earners at the expense of the lower-earning guys and/or amateurs (not to say he does that, exclusively! I’m just cautious about when it happens). But, generally speaking, Boras is just a very visible, very involved, very successful agent, who does right by his clients. I think he gets more grief than is deserved.
Not that this post is designed to be an apologia for Boras, who has been made out to be the prime bad guy by some in the CBA negotiations. Instead, it’s to introduce an interview he gave to The Athletic, the timing of which is obviously very interesting. I am always very interested to hear what he has to say, and right now that’s more true than ever. Recall, it’s not just that Boras’s agency represents dozens and dozens of players, he also counts several players on the MLBPA executive council among his clients. His opinion matters a great deal.
First, here’s the full interview, worth your time to explore (either written or in audio):
Scott Boras is the most powerful, highest-paid agent in sports.
On @TheAthletic's 755 Is Real podcast with @DOBrienATL, Boras had plenty to say about the state of baseball, how to fix the CBA, aiding minor leaguers, whether he’s bad for baseball & more ⤵️ https://t.co/I8ACmM90C1
— The Athletic MLB (@TheAthleticMLB) February 14, 2022
⚾ The trio chat Bobby Cox, Alex Anthopoulos & Braves future
🤔How would Boras improve the Minor Leagues?
❓Competition crisis in MLB?
— The Athletic Atlanta (@TheAthleticATL) February 14, 2022
The conversation was obviously wide ranging, but I wanted to touch on two points made by Boras – one because it’s central to what the players are fighting for in these CBA negotiations, and the other because it’s simply a great idea.
First, Boras hammers the idea of non-competition in the sport – it is clearly a problem that the players want to combat, both because it sucks for guys on tanking teams and because it means money isn’t being spent on salaries. What Boras highlights, though, is the impact that the changes to the draft two CBAs ago had on this issue (and we know it well, because it happened just as Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were arriving, setting up a specific plan for reorienting the organization):
I don’t think a lot of people really understood what the draft means to these major league teams. In 2011 when they allowed (MLB) to put a cap on the draft, I heard general managers say things two weeks before (about) what they were going to do, and then completely alter their program once they got the rules and understood what was available to them. And that was, sell off your free agents, it’s a race to the bottom so I can get all these valued draft picks and get as many as I can. And it gave the fan base a method of illustrating that losing was OK; it was actually beneficial. And I think when you introduce that cancer, that non-competitive cancer, into the sport … the local fan does not go to the ballpark with the intent of having his team win every day. And I think we have to reintroduce that into our game.
The combined impact of (relatively) hard bonus pools, dramatic changes to draft pick compensation, and draft-related luxury tax penalties created a situation where teams realized how hard it was going to be to build through the draft in the new world. Although tanking was always at least a peripheral issue, it did not become absolutely pervasive until teams could no longer “overspend” in the draft. You more or less had to have a high pick if you wanted a great draft class, not so much because picking higher is better (although it is!), but because the differences in the size of your bonus pool were so dramatic depending on where you were picking. The differences between a 20th pick draft and a 3rd pick draft just got SO magnified.
Also? If you know you won’t be making the playoffs anyway, and you know it’s going to hurt you significantly to finish with the 10th worst record instead of the 2nd worst record, why would you spend on free agents?
So, as Boras said, teams coupled a race to the bottom with plans to sell off at the deadline, and it became all about building up the prospect base. Again: we’ve seen it up close and personal here with the Cubs! There are reasons not to like it, obviously, but it was also the system the Cubs had to operate under. Back in 2012-14, I’m sorry, but it simply made too much sense not to do it. (In 2021, the sell-off at the deadline certainly made sense, though a multi-year tank job would not and should not, in my view.)
Interesting, then, that I’ve heard no talk about reshaping the hard bonus pools or lessening the overspending penalties to make the bonus pools much softer. Some teams might cry “competitive balance!,” but the reality is that small-market clubs were always financially able to spend more in the draft. An extra $10 million above your pool, for example, would be an absolute BLOWOUT MONSTER spending draft … you really gonna tell me the Pirates couldn’t afford that?
Instead, the focus has been on a draft lottery, which, if implemented correctly, could have the desired effect. I’m just not sure it would be nearly as effective as it would be if you paired the lottery with changes to the way bonus pools work. (Am I being a little bit of a homer because I know the Cubs would spend aggressively in the draft every year, which is all the more important in the years they’re drafting low? A little, I guess. But the same paths would be available to all teams.)
That is all to say, I think Boras is right to target this issue as a major, major factor in the competitive cultural shift over the past decade.
The other bit I want to share – again, it’s a super long interview with a lot to get into – is simply an idea for getting a little more compensation into the minor leagues. On first glance, it strikes me as a great idea, especially if paired with the continued push to improve wages in the minor leagues. It’s something like a uniform bonus system, but very smartly is not coming from the teams that might otherwise game it to the players’ detriment:
We also have to have an incentive program, where when you play over three years in the minor leagues, you get a $50,000 bonus. Not paid by the team, but paid by a contributory pool that we put player fines and penalties in over time. If you actually do make it to the major leagues, and you didn’t get a bonus that exceeded a couple of million dollars, you would then be able to get an extra $500,000 for making it to the big leagues. So these men who’ve contributed their lives, and they’re going to have very short major league careers, they’re getting a benefit from their minor league service, which, as we all know, is very important to the preparation of the great major leaguers who we enjoy.
You can play with the numbers however is necessary to actually make it financially feasible, but wouldn’t it be great if the guys who were career minor leaguers – or journeymen who just barely make the big leagues – would have a chance to earn significant dollars? They are creating value by their mere presence in the minor leagues, after all (you can’t properly develop the next superstar if he doesn’t have teammates and opponents to play with and against).