Here are the top stories from a busy Wednesday:
The fever pitch around free agent signings this time of year will reach its peak once some of the top flight free agents sign this off-season. Bryce Harper leads the pack, but Manny Machado is not far behind on the prestige scale. Some team will pay a pretty penny, usually a team flush with cash, or a team that is recognizing that their window is now.
The business of sports agency grew with the economic explosion of the game. But the dollar and cents increase beyond what ownership was starting to rake in with TV rights, licensing, and what they brought in on game days, collided with labor disputes (mostly strikes and lockouts) leveraged by players to improve the size of their piece of the pie. This created a boost in value of a player needing capable representation to secure the best deals his agent could negotiate.
The top echelon of talent from the draft will obtain the strongest representation. A small number of agents control a large percentage of the player pool, especially when factoring in who are the top earners. The rich get richer in this structure as agents with a deep client bench who capitalize on baseball’s transparency on player salaries, lead to a powerful combination. They always know who they are comparing their client to. Scott Boras’ name comes up often when looking at the most contentious negotiations between super talent and organization, but he also has been working with big data way before it was fashionable. Digging for any data point to justify his client’s price tag.
I learned firsthand about the style and approach of Scott Boras in my first meeting with him. He was prepared with data, charts, and graphs, on how I was worth more than most draft picks since I was trading strong job opportunities to play in the minors. Compelling. He took nearly a half a day to break it down with shoe-banging stories of his previous work to pry value out of every negotiation. He had the top people, which certainly makes you feel like you are in elite company. He knew the ropes, he had seen the complete picture of what it took to be the best. Whoever went with Boras would get that level of preparation, intensity, and perseverance. I knew he may break a few things along the way, but you would find every dollar in your career, even the pennies in the sofa.
I chose a different path by going with Arn Tellem. No fancy dinner to recruit me. He took me to Lee’s Hoagie House for lunch (for non-Philadelphians, think of it like a local, down home, Subway.). Low key, down to earth, and highly respected. Fortunately, I had great choices.
Once you have an agent, from the recruiting that quietly begins around the draft, you may believe you will be with this one agent for your entire career. I stayed with Tellem (now Wasserman Media Group) for my entire career, so I believe I chose well, but there is a predatory underbelly that keeps any player in a constant recruiting orbit. It could be a friend on the team that genuinely wants to bring you into his family, or a surrogate of another agent that wants to pry you away. Doubt swirls around in your head when it comes to the question of whether you signed your best deal or if your agent did not quite get the most they could have gotten for you. How a player perceives the deal he signed will often determine their happiness with their representation. Even retroactively.
Yet so much of an agent’s work is emphasizing the importance of patience. When you are in a profession where injury is a constant threat, a player does not want to stall when millions are on the table, even if you could get more. Even in youth, you get a sense of how set for life you can be when you get one big contract. So when you have been waiting a long time to sign, you will start to ask about the difference between $112 million and $116 million in the long-run. A good agent will keep you calm, especially an agent that has many other clients who may be compared to your salary when the smoke clears.
This comparison is key in baseball to assess value. Your service time, performance, age, etc. will place you into a certain slot and players with similar stats will expect to be paid in the range of like-performers. So there is incentive for any agent to get you more money, not just for commission, but to prop up the scale of the system by which ALL of their clients will be measured.
In the end, a player hires his agent. Kris Bryant underscored this point when he was sent down to Triple-A in 2015 as questions swirled around his response to being sent out after a tremendous spring training. A player has the final say, but you have an agent for a reason and an agent’s job is to get you maximum value, the player has to fill in the other key aspects of what matters to him to make a decision of where and when to sign.
Hometown discounts are often floated around as a sign of loyalty. Andrew McCutchen and Pittsburgh seemed to be a long-term marriage until it wasn’t. A player’s career is short and top earning years are even shorter, so unless you are granted guaranteed time on your deal, the priority often shifts to making the most money where you can capitalize on the best opportunity you can find.
Major League teams have to know who they are negotiating with at all times. Someone like a Boras often sets the marketplace and his deals will not be done quickly. Wait. Wait. Wait some more. Boras client, JD Drew played in an independent league just to keep waiting and to not sign with Philadelphia. Until the right deal came along.
Agents know as well as anyone in the industry that a player’s career is short, even for the most talented players in the game. The natural aging process will already compromise your productivity once you reach a certain age. Then there are the unforeseen issues of injuries and personal strife, timing and developmental stressors. Players underachieve, overachieve or just plain achieve, all come with a certain price tag to assign to that player.
At this time of year when the market is about to explode, deals will be made, money thrown around. Players will turn down ridiculous amounts of money to just wait for the next offer, or to just bet on themselves. While a player waits, someone else will sign on the dotted line, eventually. He will then create a standard, especially when that player is your match in production and age, service, and position. Then you will be compared to them, for better or for worse.
Your agent’s job is to make it for better. Your team may respectively disagree.
One of the main Cubs themes coming out of Winter Meetings last week was the desire for better communication between the front office/coaching staff and the millennial players.
What better way to bridge the gap than to hire a millennial to head up the organization's pitching infrastructure?
Tommy Hottovy, 37, was named the Cubs' new pitching coach earlier this month, a big promotion after he's spent the last four years as a run prevention coordinator with the team.
Sure, it's the Cubs' third different pitching coach in three seasons, but this isn't some 50-year-old coming in off the street having to introduce himself to each of the pitchers on the staff. Hottovy is a guy who can relate to the players in age (he's only about 2 years older than Jon Lester and Cole Hamels) and from the rapport he's built as an integral part of the clubhouse since the start of the 2015 season.
This is a former pitcher who made 17 appearances in the big leagues and last pitched a full season in the minor leagues only a few years ago (2013). The Wichita State University product also has seen the rise of the Cubs firsthand, joining the organization in Kris Bryant's first spring training in 2014 while still trying to make it as a pitcher before trainsitioning to the video scouting/coaching aspect of the game.
"When I was done playing, I really felt like there was this gap in the game. I really felt like there was a unique spot for guys like me who had a little experience," Hottovy said. "I didn't have all the major-league experience those guys have, but I stepped foot out there. I can relate to those guys. But then I can also communicate with the front office and the R&D department that's giving us such good information.
"How can we translate that and take a nugget and give it to Quintana or how can we take a nugget and give it to Lester? We joke because we may do 3-4 hours of work and dig and dig for that two-minute conversation and that two-minute conversation may make or break the next two weeks of the season for the player. So that's really what I envisioned that role to kind of become — to help guys shorten that gap between when we need to make an adjustment and when things got out of whack.
"I was a player and you had to do that off feel — or what a coach told you — for a long time. Now we have data to help provide all that. Now it's about funneling it down and translating it to the players."
Hottovy will have his plate full in his first year on the job as major questions exist on the Cubs pitching staff, including the role/future of Tyler Chatwood, the return to health of Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow and how to avoid a third straight late-season bullpen fade.
He'll also have to navigate the dugout and a new line of communication with Joe Maddon during games instead of delivering scouting reports and information to the manager ahead of games and series. But Hottovy said he's not concerned about that aspect, as he's worked closely with Maddon for four years now and the organization's pitching infrastructure (Hottovy, catching/strategy/associate pitching coach Mike Borzello, bullpen coach Lester Strode) remains intact, which the Cubs hope will lead to year-over-year continuity.
One of Hottovy's main points of interest this offseason is trying to find a way to limit all the free passes. Cubs pitchers walked the third-most hitters in baseball in 2018 and finished 8th in that regard in 2017. (For reference, they finished 14th in walks allowed in 2016 and permitted the fifth-fewest free passes in 2015.)
A lot of that was Chatwood, who led baseball with 95 walks despite throwing only 9.2 innings in the final two months of the season.
But it wasn't just Chatwood. Jon Lester posted his worst walk rate since 2011 and Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish (when he pitched) and Brian Duensing sported the highest walk rates of their career while young flamethrower Carl Edwards Jr. still struggled with his command.
So how can Hottovy and Co. fix an issue that has plagued this team and driven fans crazy for the last two years?
"To say we're gonna walk less people, that's not — in my mind — the right approach to take," Hottovy said. "It's process-oriented, not results. What can we do ahead of time? What can we do that's gonna help? It's about attacking hitters. It's about having the right approach and I think a lot of those this will take care of themselves.
"I think we need to take maybe a little bit different approach to what our goals are in terms of we're not gonna walk anybody, etc. We're [9th] in the league in OPS, so you have the high walk rates, but we limit slug and we do other things. So how can we get better on both aspects of that?"
Much like the position players, Hottovy said the Cubs pitchers are eager to get back to work and come out of the shoot firing in spring training in an effort to put the sour taste of the end of the 2018 season behind them.
Hottovy may not be reading "Managing Millennials for Dummies," but he's still interested in the same concept — paring down the insane amount of information available and focusing on the WHY behind decisions and adjustments.
"With all of our guys, what you're trying to do ultimately is get them in the best position to execute a pitch," Hottovy said. "Yeah, there's mechanics things they work on with everybody, but letting them understand what those mechanical changes are and not just telling them, "You do this and this is gonna help." We're walking them through why and we're helping them see why this part of the delivery is important.
"We have a lot of data and that data will give us information on mechanics and how to make changes, but it's about simplifying it. It's about giving them one or two nuggets to focus on and not 10 different things. It's about, hopefully, in the end, you land in a good position to throw a baseball and execute."
When Hottovy met with the media in Las Vegas last week for the first time since taking the job, he was asked specifically about working with Chatwood and Darvish this winter as the two big free agent signings from last winter are looking to build off rough first years with the Cubs.
However, Hottovy has an interest in meeting with each of the Cubs' pitchers this winter. And since the organization has yet to add to the pitching staff this winter, everybody on Hottovy's current list is a familiar face.
That includes veteran reliever Brandon Kintzler, who had a forgettable time with the Cubs in the final two months of the season, but exercised his $5 million option for the 2019 season. Kintzler is a Las Vegas native, so Hottovy stopped in to see the right-hander before the Winter Meetings began.
"I think it's important to go see as many guys as we can just to get eyes on them. There's technology now — you can FaceTime and see, but there's something to be said to be there and see them," said Hottovy, who wants to visit each guy in person before pitchers and catchers report to Arizona in mid-February. "I think it's important."