Arbiter to decide Alvarez's fate with Pirates
It was cause for celebration when Pedro Alvarez reached a last minute agreement with the Pirates. Was the party premature?
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Was it a minute before midnight?
A minute after?
The Pirates and first-round draft pick Pedro Alvarez are publicly disputing precisely when the Vanderbilt University third baseman verbally agreed to a $6 million signing bonus -- before or after Major League Baseball's midnight Aug. 15 deadline -- and that could cost the franchise its highest-profile prospect in a decade.
That is, if an arbitrator decides that the passing of the deadline even mattered.
The MLB Players Association yesterday filed a grievance against commissioner Bud Selig's office - not on behalf of Alvarez, who is not a major league player -- alleging that Alvarez's agreement and others from the same date were executed past midnight and, thus, were in violation of MLB's labor pact. Each side will make its case before arbitrator Shyam Das Sept. 10 in New York, and his ruling will be binding.
The grievance, a copy of which was obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, charges that Selig's office "unilaterally determined" that negotiations could proceed past midnight. It did not did not name any players, though Alvarez's case largely prompted it. It also did not specify what action the union is seeking, though general counsel Mike Weiner said that will be established after more research.
"It is the union's obligation, on behalf of all players, to defend the integrity of its collectively bargained agreements," Weiner said.
If the arbitrator should rule for the union, according to two baseball executives who declined to be named, he likely will have three courses for action:
• Scrap the previous agreement and send the Pirates and Alvarez into new negotiations. This is known to be the preference of Alvarez's renowned agent, Scott Boras, who would welcome the chance at a higher bonus. But there is no precedent for such a decision.
• Allow Alvarez to go back into the draft class for next year. The Pirates picked him No. 2 overall June 5, and they would be compensated with No. 3 overall next year.
• Decide that his ruling should apply only to future instances.
The executives said the third option is the most likely, based on arbitration precedent for MLB's labor laws as they apply to the commissioner using his discretion.
"He would say this is how it's going to be going forward," one executive said.
MLB, which approved the Alvarez agreement and the others, will build its case on the stance that minor league contracts do not apply within the labor pact as it pertains to this matter. Alvarez's agreement called for a minor league contract.
Rob Manfred, MLB's vice president of labor relations, acknowledged that the commissioner's office granted permission to more than one team -- without specifying the Pirates -- to proceed beyond the midnight Aug. 15 deadline. But he called the union's grievance "entirely without merit," adding that the deadline "was extended to accept minor league contracts" and that "it is settled law that the arbitration panel has no authority to disturb such minor league contracts."
Pirates president Frank Coonelly, whose job until last year was MLB's general labor counsel, sounded confident that the commissioner's office will prevail.
"The office has assured us that we have a valid contract with Pedro and that it will vigorously defend any claim to the contrary," Coonelly said.
Alvarez had been conspicuously missing since his agreement, and the Pirates attempted to explain that away by citing "travel issues" or other "complications" involving Boras. They also publicly stressed the importance of Alvarez reporting as soon as possible to take his physical, have his introductory news conference and, most important, prepare for a fall playing assignment in Arizona or Hawaii.
Yesterday, though, everything came out in a rush.
It began early in the afternoon with Coonelly issuing a lengthy statement led by the news that the Pirates had placed Alvarez on MLB's restricted list. That is mostly a formality, one that prevents Alvarez from signing with another team.
Deeper into that statement, Coonelly, a long-time rival of Boras because of Coonelly's previous job, charged Boras with telling the Pirates Alvarez will not report unless the team increases the $6 million bonus. He also accused Boras of usurping his client's best interests.
"Regrettably, we are not surprised that Mr. Boras would attempt to raise a meritless legal claim in an effort to compel us to renegotiate Pedro's contract to one more to his liking," Coonelly said.
Boras responded to the statement in a phone interview with the Post-Gazette: "The Pirates violated Major League Baseball rules and have issued a nearly 600-word statement to make their actions out to be my fault. 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."
Flashing back to Aug. 15, here is each camp's view of how that night played out ...
The parties agree that there were several discussions between Boras and general manager Neal Huntington, the Pirates' lead negotiator, in the three days leading up Aug. 15. But, on that date, there was no communication until minutes before midnight.
A source on the Alvarez side maintained yesterday that the Pirates' offer was $5 million. Coonelly wrote in his statement that the Pirates were were "willing and ready to pay Pedro a $6 million signing bonus" right after he was drafted, but no one with the team disputes the $5 million figure for deadline day. Boras' figure was $9.5 million, including a major league contract.
Each side agreed that Huntington phoned Boras at 11:56 p.m. with the Pirates' offer now up to $6 million. The parties were disconnected two minutes later, then quickly reconnected. This time, it was Alvarez - seated next to Boras in the agent's California office -- on the phone with Huntington.
The stories mostly split from here.
A Pirates source maintained that Alvarez almost immediately spoke the words, "I accept," into the phone, thus validating the agreement. Huntington then turned to a nearby assistant and shouted, "Send it!" to relay an emailed copy of the agreement - with all details - to MLB headquarters in New York. The team originally offered two different times for that happening, 11:58 or 11:59. Alvarez then stayed on the phone with Huntington for a short spell, Boras never rejoining the conversation.
Coonelly went so far as to praise Alvarez in his statement for his "tremendous fortitude and independent thinking" in that moment.
The Alvarez side concurred that Alvarez accepted, but the contention is that it occurred after midnight.
Through all this, according to the Pirates source, the team was in touch by phone with MLB headquarters, acknowledging that some of that contact continued beyond midnight. Three other teams also were believed to be in contact with MLB - the Kansas City Royals, San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals - for similar purposes.
In 2007, MLB granted a midnight exception to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Julio Borbon, a Boras client, the only one before this year under the most recent labor pact.
It is not known which of the three this year might have continued beyond midnight, but Coonelly singled out the Royals in his statement, saying they reached agreement with first baseman Eric Hosmer, another Boras client, after the Pirates did with Alvarez.
"Mr. Boras is apparently satisfied with the $6 million bonus he secured for Mr. Hosmer and has not challenged the validity of that contract," Coonelly said.
The source on the Alvarez side said Boras contacted the union about an hour after the deadline. The Pirates did not learn of that until two days later.
The sides agree that no money has been discussed, should a new negotiations be imposed by the arbitrator.
Alvarez's agreement called for $3 million this year, the same amount the next. Because no actual contract was tendered or signed after the agreement - both sides agree on that, too -- no money has exchanged hands. Even if one had been signed, no money would have been paid until 90 days elapsed.
Coonelly's statement included several clear attempts to steer Alvarez away from Boras, including writing that he was "disappointed" Alvarez would go along with this new course.
"Despite our disappointment, we continue to believe in Pedro Alvarez the person and the baseball player and remain excited to add Pedro to our system," Coonelly said. "We will sit down with Pedro and his family as soon as Mr. Boras' claim is rejected to chart a new and much more productive start to Pedro's career with the Pittsburgh Pirates."
There has been no indication on the Alvarez side of disunity between him and Boras. Nor has there been any indication that Alvarez does not want to play for the Pirates.
First Published August 27, 2008 11:10 pm