Analysis: Alvarez case a personality clash?
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For all the ticking clocks, terse exchanges and now a full-blown drama between Major League Baseball and its players' union, it might be easy to lose sight of perhaps the most pivotal aspect of the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez saga:
Why did they bother?
Why did the Pirates get into a process they knew could descend into this type of mess, given all teams' history of difficult negotiations with Scott Boras, Alvarez's high-profile agent?
And why did Boras engage the Pirates, whose history had been to avoid him at all costs?
For the most accurate picture, it is first necessary to rewind to the draft of 2007 ...
Boras represented the player many scouts considered the best of the class, Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters, and placed him in what he calls a "special" category. That, as all general managers know, means the asking price for a signing bonus can approach eight figures.
- Box score
- Game: Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Tom Gorzelanny (6-8, 6.82) vs. RHP Dave Bush (8-9, 4.24).
- Key matchup: Adam LaRoche is batting .344 -- 10 for 29 -- vs. Milwaukee this season, with two home runs.
- Of note: The Brewers are 8-1 against the Pirates, have outscored them by 57-29, and are batting a cumulative .330 with 15 home runs.
Most teams contacted Boras to inquire about Wieters, but not the Pirates, who had the No. 4 overall pick. So, Boras, according to a source in his agency, phoned Dave Littlefield, the general manager at the time, to find out why. The team's response was that it did not view Wieters as a top-five talent, in part because of his throwing. Boras was incredulous that Wieters' throwing -- widely viewed as fine, anyway -- could be prioritized over his switch-hitting, power-hitting abilities, and the conversation soon ended.
Wieters, of course, dropped to No. 5 for Baltimore, and the Orioles never blinked in getting him to sign for $6 million.
How much of that scene could be blamed on the Pirates' talent evaluation -- Boras was not the only agent to have such an experience with previous management -- and how much could be placed on a reluctance to negotiate with Boras, no one can say for sure.
But this much is known: Boras' presence lingered.
Pirates owner Bob Nutting was embarrassed by the vocal fan protest that followed the Wieters episode, and that contributed to his firing of Littlefield two months later. Even when Nutting hired team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington in September, the Boras/Wieters issue remained the focus of media questioning.
This was especially true for Coonelly because he previously worked for nearly a decade as general labor counsel in MLB commissioner Bud Selig's office. Part of his duty was to advise teams on spending in the draft, urging them to adhere to signing bonuses recommended by the commissioner.
It is there that Coonelly and Boras developed a history of a professional - maybe even personal - rivalry.
Boras has found his fame and fortune by operating outside the box in a tireless attempt to stretch his clients' rights -- and wallets -- through the MLB system. And he has done so with a palpable immunity to the criticism he hears or reads from others. To be sure, from MLB headquarters to general managers to other agents, it is difficult to find one who does not have some beef with how he operates.
One example of a Boras strategy ...
Under the labor pact in place until 2007, a drafted player was ineligible to be signed once he went to college. Not when he committed to go, but when he actually attended a class. Otherwise, teams had a full year to continue scouting that player through what was called the draft-and-follow.
Most players signed close to the deadline after the draft-and-follow period, but Boras would create his own as he pleased: He would contact teams on random days to tell them a client would be attending his first class the following morning.
It was Coonelly's job to monitor strategies like that, inform all 30 teams of how they work and, above all, advise them to stand firm. If those teams would concede, Coonelly then would become the "Enforcer," as some baseball executives dubbed him, and give them an earful. As a result, there were many sharply worded conversations between Coonelly and Boras, as well.
Throw that into the mix, and it is easy to see why many in the baseball community had eyes on the Pirates with this draft, not only to see if Coonelly would spend above MLB's recommendations, but also if he would dare to take Alvarez.
Boras, too, seemed to anticipate it a few months back when he told Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman of Coonelly's new role, "When you're in the winning business versus the institutional business, those are two different worlds. I hope all teams apply their best efforts to take the best player available to them."
Might Boras have relished such a confrontation?
Might Coonelly have?
Actions before the draft show neither side was about to blink ...
Boras remained leery of the Pirates, partly because of the Wieters draft, partly because he never had met Nutting. The way Boras' unique agency operates, and given the scope of his illustrious clientele, owners and other team executives often come to him for introductions.
Still, when it became clear that the Pirates were eyeing Alvarez with the No. 2 overall pick -- how could they not after the Wieters fiasco? -- Boras never crossed them off his list.
He did the usual canvassing, including the usual big-spenders at the lower end of the first round who wait for prospects such as Alvarez to fall to them when Boras out-prices those at the top. But Boras did not have to call the Pirates because it was Huntington who approached him to relay their genuine interest.
Boras responded by granting two pre-draft, face-to-face meetings between Huntington, Pirates scouting director Greg Smith and Alvarez. Such meetings, the Boras source said, never take place unless Boras views the team as a serious suitor.
The Pirates decided Huntington would have the sole voice in negotiations, and that probably was no accident: Coonelly is more outwardly intense than the easygoing Huntington and, given his history with Boras, a clash might have taken place in the first exchange.
Boras and Huntington negotiated regularly, each satisfied with the other's approach even if their numbers were miles apart: Boras sought as much as $9.5 million, and Huntington's only offer until the Aug. 15 deadline was $5 million. But they never stopped communicating and, as late as Aug. 13, Boras granted Huntington a full hour on the phone with Alvarez.
The other constant was that Boras and Coonelly, by all accounts, did not speak. Nor did their personalities have much chance to shine through. Coonelly took a couple slight jabs at Boras by expressing some "frustration." Boras was unable to address the negotiations at all because, officially, he was no more than an adviser to Alvarez, a student at Vanderbilt University.
But, when the MLB Players Association filed its grievance Wednesday contending that some contract agreements were reached beyond the midnight Aug. 15 deadline - including that of Alvarez - all that these two likely kept pent up came bursting out ...
Coonelly issued an extraordinary 575-word press release that charged Boras with trying to squeeze more money out of the Pirates, with not doing what is best for his client, and it stopped just short of openly advocating that Alvarez finds a new agent by praising Alvarez for "independent thinking" for agreeing to the terms Aug. 15.
Boras responded pointedly: "I think it's time for the Pirates and Mr. Coonelly to come clean with the fans of Pittsburgh and let everyone know about their dealings with Pedro Alvarez."
"You don't see a statement like that every day," an American League team official said yesterday of Coonelly's release. "But that tells you a lot about those two. There is no love lost there at all."
There is this, too: Roughly an hour after the deadline, Boras informed the union that he was dissatisfied with the Alvarez agreement being reached past the deadline. But he is not known to have made any such complaint about Kansas City's deal with another of his clients, first baseman Eric Hosmer, even though the Pirates maintain Hosmer's deal - also $6 million -- came after Alvarez. (Royals general manager Dayton Moore yesterday said their deal happened within "an appropriate time frame.")
Why did Boras apparently single out the Pirates?
And how much of all this, in both directions, has been born of a personal challenge for two powerful, strong-willed figures in the game?
More chapters remain.
First Published August 29, 2008 12:00 am