Scott Boras allegedly loaned Dominican players money. Is this a problem?

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The New York Times is reporting that Scott Boras, possibly in violation of MLBPA rules, made loans to Dominican prospects “raising questions” about whether his company “exploited the prospects.”  A spokesman for Major League Baseball said that “this is a serious issue that raises concerns about the business practices of agents who have played a prominent role in the game.”

The article outlines a loan Boras made to Braves’ shortstop prospect Edward Salcedo, to whom Boras made a $70,000 loan prior to his getting a $1.6 million bonus. At the time, Salcedo was seen as damaged goods, as an earlier deal had fallen through with the Indians because he turned out to be older than he previously said he was. Boras made the loan, the report says, time passed, during which a third party — trainer Edgar Mercedes — helped resolve the age issue — and then Salcedo signed his deal with the Braves. Boras then demanded repayment of the loan. Salcedo is still represented by Boras, even though Mercedes tried to get him to sign with a different agent. The loan has still not been paid back.

I get the potential seriousness of an agent giving big money loans to poor Dominican prospects: there is a potential for exploitation if the agent uses the leverage of the loan to coerce the player or to limit choices. Like any dealings with teenage athletes and their families, there are a number of sensible reasons to have rules in place regarding such transactions, regulating them, and requiring some sort of approval process or oversight to ensure that no one is being taken advantage of.  And, according to the report, the MLBPA apparently does have such rules.

But even if Boras violated these rules in the Salcedo case, I’m not seeing any evidence in this article that (a) anyone was taken advantage of; or (b) anyone was actually harmed.  Salcedo was hard-up. Boras loaned him money. Salcedo signed with the Braves. Boras asked for the money back. In the interim another person did some work that perhaps Boras should have been doing (i.e. helping resolve the age issue).  Again, this all may have been in violation of MLBPA rules, and if so, that’s serious in and of itself, but the article tries hard to cast this as an exploitation piece, and I just don’t see how, in this particular case, the loan to a prospect was exploitative in any way.

Indeed, the only hint at that that there was pressure of any kind comes in the last paragraph of the article, where it is suggested that Salcedo felt obligated to stay with Boras as a result of the loan. But that part is all based on quotes from that trainer, Edgar Mercedes, who is affiliated with another agent who wanted to snag Salcedo for himself.  That’s not exactly a damning indictment. And the fact that Salcedo continues to be represented by Boras despite the ability to fire him if he wanted to and having the financial means to easily repay the loan if he so chose, cuts against the notion that he is somehow shackled to Boras as a result of an overreach by the agent.

Could there be a problem here? Absolutely. If Boras has broken union rules regarding loans, that’s bad and should be investigated and punished if the allegation is borne out. But this piece was not written simply to highlight a potential violation of union rules. It was designed to be of a piece with the authors’ last article, regarding U.S. investors making money off of Dominican players by setting up training academies, casting it all into a “U.S. Baseball Exploits Dominican Kids” narrative.  While I said before that I believe there are serious problems with the training academies — i.e. in those cases, unlike Major League Baseball and even agents like Boras, the investors have no incentive to look after kids’ welfare after the signing bonus is paid —  this Boras story does not fit the narrative that the Times is trying to create. This merely points out a possibly troublesome  incident and even then doesn’t establish that anything untoward occurred.

So, unless and until we learn more, I’m not going to get too worked up by this. Just because kids in the Dominican Republic are involved does not mean they are being exploited. Just because Scott Boras is involved does not mean something bad is happening. We need to know more before getting out the torches and pitchforks.

Nick Markakis: ‘I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?’

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Earlier today, the Braves inked veteran outfielder Nick Markakis to a one-year deal worth $4 million with a club option for the 2020 season worth $6 million with a $2 million buyout. Though Markakis is 35 years old, he’s coming off of a terrific season in which he played in all 162 games and hit .297/.366/.440 with 14 home runs and 93 RBI in 705 trips to the plate. Markakis had just completed a four-year, $44 million contract, so he took a substantial pay cut.

Per David O’Brien of The Athletic, Markakis asked his kids where they wanted him to play and they said Atlanta. O’Brien also asked Markakis about the pay cut. The outfielder said, “I’m not mad at all. I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?”

This seemingly innocuous comment by Markakis is actually damaging for his peers and for the union. Baseball as a game is indeed a “kids’ game,” but Major League Baseball is a billion-dollar business that has been setting revenue records year over year. The players have seen a smaller and smaller percentage of the money MLB makes since the beginning of the 2000’s. Furthermore, Markakis only gets paid “a lot of money” relative to, say, a first-year teacher or a clerk at a convenience store. Relative to the value of Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, and relative to the value of Major League Baseball itself, Markakis’s salary is a drop in the ocean.

That Markakis is happy to take a pay cut is totally fine, but it’s harmful for him to publicly justify that because it creates the expectation that his peers should feel the same way and creates leverage for ownership. His comments mirror those who sympathize first and foremost with billionaire team owners. They are common arguments used to justify paying players less, giving them a smaller and smaller cut of the pie. Because Markakis not only took a pay cut but defended it, front office members of the Braves as well as the 29 other teams can point to him and guilt or shame other players for asking for more money.

“Look at Nick, he’s a team player,” I envision a GM saying to younger Braves player who is seeking a contract extension, or a free agent looking to finally find a home before spring training. “Nick’s stats are as good as yours, so why should you make more money than him?”

Contrast Markakis’s approach with Yasmani Grandal‘s. Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year, $60 million contract offer from the Mets early in the offseason and settled for a one-year, $18.25 million contract with the Brewers. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Grandal said on MLB Network, “I felt like part of my responsibility as a player was to respect the guys that went through this process before I did. Guys like Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, These are guys who established markets and pay levels for upper-tier catchers like me. I felt like I was doing a disservice if I were to take some of the deals that were being thrown around. I wanted to keep the line moving especially for some of the younger guys that are coming up … to let them know, if you’re worthy, then you should get paid what you’re worth. That’s where I was coming from.”

Grandal’s comments are exactly what a member of a union should be saying, unapologetically. The MLBPA needs to get all of its members on the same page when it comes to discussing contracts or labor situations in general publicly. What Markakis said seems selfless and innocent — and I have no doubt he is being genuine without malice — but it could reduce the bargaining power players have across the table from ownership, which means less money. They are already being bamboozled, at least until the next collective bargaining agreement. They don’t need to be bamboozled any more.