As much fun as it can be to criticize, the reality is that nearly every decision made by an MLB organization is justifiable. It’s a competitive business, after all, with great potential rewards, so organizations have to look out for themselves, and they have to make sure they’re going down the right path. Decisions have to be made rationally, intelligently, and that’s what makes the occasional transaction so extraordinary. There was simply no reasonable explanation for, say, the Angels trading for Vernon Wells. Likewise, there was no reasonable explanation for the Tigers getting so little for Doug Fister. These decisions have stood out specifically because of how unambiguously bad they were. Decisions of that ilk are few and far between.
The Phillies, as an organization, are no stranger to criticism. This is a team that has yet to rebuild, the same team that gave Ryan Howard way too big of a contract. It’s an aging team, a team that’s easy to mock, a team that might believe it’s more than it is, but the latest issue with the Phillies has nothing at all to do with the payroll or major-league roster. It has to do with the draft, and with the Phillies turning in unsigned collegiate players to the NCAA for dealing with professional agents.
According to the NCAA, the latter isn’t supposed to happen. According to the real world, the former isn’t supposed to happen. The story was broken by Aaron Fitt at Baseball America, and here’s the quick summary:
- the Phillies drafted Ben Wetzler in the fifth round last summer
- the Phillies drafted Jason Monda in the sixth round
- the Phillies planned to sign both guys
- both guys opted to return to school for their senior years
- the Phillies tipped off the NCAA that both players were using agents, in violation of the NCAA rules
- the NCAA subsequently opened up investigations
- Monda was cleared and ruled eligible
- Wetzler has not yet been cleared and could be ruled ineligible
The NCAA makes it clear that players are not supposed to be represented by agents in negotiations, and that if that were to happen, the given player would lose his amateur status. Agents can be consulted as “advisers”, but things can go no deeper than that. The rules are as explicit as they are ignored — basically every drafted player has an agent, and everyone knows it, including the NCAA. For teams, dealing with agents is standard operating procedure. Tipping off the NCAA when things go awry is very much not.
One thing to understand is that this isn’t entirely unprecedented. A few years ago, the Blue Jays deliberately or accidentally cost James Paxton his senior year of college after failing to sign him. According to Jim Callis, many moons ago the White Sox chose to tattle on A.J. Hinch. Another thing to understand is that we don’t have the complete story, and we probably never will have the complete story, and we can’t be sure if this was an organizational decision on the Phillies’ part, or if this was, say, one guy. A bigger thing to understand is that NCAA rules aren’t MLB rules, and this makes the Phillies look awful vindictive.
I’ve tried, I really have, to see this from the Phillies’ perspective, and to see it in a way that makes the Phillies’ decision look reasonable and well thought out. I just haven’t been able to come up with anything. Absolutely, the Phillies were disappointed — from the looks of things, Wetzler and Monda presented themselves as signable, and then later they changed their minds and went back to school. The Phillies are entitled to be a little pissed off. But to then turn the players in for alleged violation of a rule that shouldn’t exist in the first place — all that is is message-sending, and petty revenge, senseless punishment of the helpless young by the angry and powerful.
The read is that the Phillies don’t want this to happen again. This could be interpreted as a threat to certain players they draft down the road. Sign or face, at the very least, an extended, attention-grabbing inconvenience. Assuming the players use agents, which all of them do. Not every drafted player would be affected, and many drafted players sign anyway, so in that sense this isn’t a huge story, but this is going to color the perception of the Phillies within the industry. This scores them no points with players or with agents, and while in the end the Phillies have money and players will take it, it’s hard to see what the Phillies gain.
It’s hard to see what anyone gains. That’s what makes this, to me, an unambiguously bad decision. The players, obviously, lose, in that they face investigation and possible ineligibility that could alter the course of a career. The Phillies lose, in that they look like pricks, and parties might be less willing to negotiate with them in the future. The NCAA loses, in that attention is called to a rule that doesn’t make any sense. It’s a rule, granted, the NCAA would like to uphold, but it’s also a rule the NCAA knows wouldn’t hold up in court. Perhaps the NCAA already gets so much bad PR that more of it can’t do any damage, but now this looks like potential selective discipline, initiated by an MLB organization with an axe to grind.
It should be obvious that it’s unreasonable to expect a player to negotiate with a ballclub without having an agent by his side. Advisers are permitted, but only to an extent, and it doesn’t make sense that there should be limits given that agents are trained for this sort of thing and players are athletes with little to no bargaining experience. If there’s a long-term upside to this, it’s that in time we could see rule reform — by allowing for further interaction with agents, the NCAA could conceivably regulate what’s allowed and what’s not, since currently everything has to be done in secret and then there are the attendant issues with trust and representative qualification. Yet reform would’ve been possible anyway, without a baseball team interfering with a college kid’s very livelihood.
Like everyone else, I’m eager to hear the Phillies’ side of the story, if we ever actually get it. I want to hear their justification for trying to punish young athletes who made the decision to spend a fourth year at college. But no matter what they might say, I can’t come up with any line of reasoning that excuses what reads as nothing more than vindictive behavior. Maybe there’s something and I just can’t think of it, or maybe the Phillies let emotion get the best of them and made a decision that benefits nobody.
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