Good GMs, Bad Agents

Ryan Howard’s massive new extension brought forth various responses, many of them focusing on Philadelpha General Manager Ruben Amaro and his front office. Most of the reactions I read were negative, some were positive. None of what I read praised Howard’s agent, Casey Close.

Andrew Friedman and the Tampa Bay Rays’ front office are regularly and rightly praised for transforming a laughingstock with a small budget into a stacked monster with a small budget. The crowning achievement of Tampa Bay’s front office (so far) is undoubtedly signing third baseman Evan Longoria, then (2008) quite new to the big leagues, to a contract that guarantees him less over the guaranteed portion of the the contract (2008-2013) than Ryan Howard will be paid in 2010. It also includes three club options for 2014-2016. Longoria’s 2010 base salary (without prorating his signing bonus) is less than one million dollars. Nothing I have read says anything about the job done by his agent, Paul Cohen.

Last month, in reference to Barry Zito, R.J. Anderson wrote,

Should we really mock players for making prudent financial decisions when we praise management for doing the same?

I’m curious about something very much like this, with agents standing in for players. When we (and “we” here is not merely rhetorical, it includes me) praise/condemn a deal, we usually mean good or bad for the team’s budget. I know that some of us will sometimes call it a “win” for the player, or a “fair deal for both sides,” but I don’t think I’m being inaccurate in saying that is not the usual discourse on these matters. If the deal is good/bad for the team, we say that the general manager or front office did a good/bad job.

Take an agent like Casey Close, or, I don’t know, let’s pick someone non-controversial… Scott Boras. Close or Boras will come up, but usually the best that is said about them outside of sabermetric circles is that “they are part of the process” and that “it’s their job to get their clients the most money.” Sabermetric circles mostly avoid “Boras is the devil” talk. This isn’t another “agents are just doing their job” peice. Well, not exactly, although that is true.

What interests me is not the lack of praise for agents who are good at their job (although I think Mystery Team is probably sick of being unable to sign anyone). What interests me is the comparison of the negative cases: while someone might call a general manager “terrible” or “incompetent” because of foolish contracts, I’ve never read a piece going on at length that an agent should be fired because of an extremely team-favorable contract. One can quibble over specific circumstances, but just as it is the GM’s job to look at his team’s future and the player’s likely performance down the line when establishing what he can pay a particular player, it is the the job of the agent to do the same in the players’ interest. The agent has to be able to evaluate talent and the market down the road. I’m not trying to pick on any agent in particular — one would need to look at each agent’s clients to see how they made out. This would be an interesting comparative project.

Our current focus is understandable. Most of us are fans first, we want our teams to do well, and so we admire/denigrate GMs who sign good/bad deals. This also give us the urge (that some resist) to get angry with agents for “just doing their jobs.” My question to us, not as fans, but as (amateur) analysts going forward: what about the agents who (might be) doing their jobs badly?

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can’t get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Wasn’t the Felipe Lopez situation an example where an agent was branded a failure for not getting his client a reasonable contract? Also, I remember Mark Ellis’ contract being described as very team friendly, and his agent being questioned for not persuading his client to at least test the market. He didn’t sign until after the ’08 season, and would’ve been a FA after the WS. Despite his surgery, many viewed the contract as far beneath his value.

However, it turned out (remember O-Dog?), that his agent may have read the market correctly as veteran, middle-tier second basemen just haven’t gotten contracts in the past three years.

It will be interesting to see, going forward, how “team-friendly” contracts are seen in terms of the market. Will it be borne out that they are actually friendly?