Charlie Blackmon and a look inside the backstabbing world of sports agents
As the hot stove continues to run ice cold, let’s take a few minutes and look at the fun, weird world of agent politics.
A little less than two weeks ago, Rockies All-Star center fielder Charlie Blackmon agreed to a one-year deal worth $14 million to avoid arbitration. That deal almost doubles what the reigning NL batting champ made in 2017 and constitutes the third highest raise in arbitration history among position players, trailing only Bryce Harper ‘s raise for 2016 and Chris Davis’ for 2013. All in all it seemed like a pretty nice haul for him. Good player gets a big raise in his last arbitration year. A tale as old as time, right?
Not to everyone.
- It was strange because, rather than it being a one-off comment in a notes column or something, it was an article dedicated specifically to attacking it, headlined “Did Charlie Blackmon get a bad deal?";
- It was strange because, rather than focus primarily on Blackmon’s production or his and the Rockies’ respective positions, it focused on Blackmon’s agents, the ACES Agency, and made a comment about how Blackmon’s very choice to switch to ACES “shook the industry” (More on that below);
- It was strange because it cited an anonymous “arbitration expert” to say that his deal was light but did not make a case why Blackmon deserved more. At the very most it cited some pretty different and exceptional players like Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson as comps in an attempt to make that case. I love me some Charlie Blackmon, but c’mon, he’s not otherworldly like Harper or Donaldson and his specific contractual situation is not similar to theirs at all.
I’ve been doing this for over a decade and I can’t recall an article quite like this one. So what gives? Having read it several times now, I cannot escape the conclusion that it’s less about baseball and Charlie Blackmon than it is about agents fighting with one another behind the scenes, with Jon Heyman serving as one of the fighting agents’ mouthpieces.
It may seem weird for agents to fight with each other through the press over someone like Charlie Blackmon, but there’s a heck of a lot more going on these days in the land of agents than just Charlie Blackmon.
In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a bad market out there. Players aren’t getting signed and they’re getting antsy. They call their agents in distress and, one can imagine, with no small amount of anger. “Why don’t I have a job yet, man?!” Maybe they’re even threatening to fire their agent and find someone new. That happens all the time anyway, but it has to be happening even more now, and that’s some serious pressure.
But it’s more than just that. Remember Jason Wood? He was the agent who got fired few weeks ago after it was alleged that he secretly filmed players while they showered in his home. Wood had a big stable of clients. You’ve heard of Andrew Benintendi, but he also represented David Phelps, Jake Odorizzi and a whole lot of guys with a ton of upside in Single-A and Double-A. It’s not every day that manna falls from Heaven like that. Folks I’ve talked to in the industry tell me that “there’s blood in the water” and all the big agencies are killing one another to sign Wood’s guys. I even heard a story that, two weeks ago, when the deadline for players and teams to exchange arbitration numbers was looming, teams had trouble reaching some agents because they were so busy chasing down Wood’s former clients. That may or may not be hyperbole, but the sense in the industry is that the Wood thing is at the top of every agent’s agenda.
With that stuff in mind, ask yourself: how do agents sell themselves to potential clients? One obvious way is by reputation. By saying “look at all of the good results I got for my clients over the years, you should go with me.” That’s a fine pitch, obviously. Another way, though -- which should not be at all surprising given the way that agents and lawyers and folks in that world roll -- is by highlighting the negative results (or allegedly negative results) other players endured while represented by the competition.
When an agent sits down with a 19-year-old prospect, he does not just give him his business card and résumé. He shows them news clippings of both his good results and his opponents’ bad results and says “see, I’m better than them.” Indeed, they keep clipping books of stories for just that purpose. I know, because I’ve been told that my clippings have been used in just such a fashion. I’d complain about not getting a commission, but I suppose we’ll leave that for another day.
In any event, when one takes a fresh look at Heyman’s article, it’s inescapable that it was tailor made to sit in some agent’s clipping book to convince players not to sign with ACES. It may as well have been requested to serve that exact purpose.
It talks about Blackmon’s allegedly shocking decision to sign with ACES, calling their very standing into question, despite the fact that they are a major agency which has landed massive deals for clients like Jon Lester, David Wright and countless others. It makes a reference to the fact that ACES has not gone to actual arbitration hearings in some time -- specifically mentioning a relatively ancient arbitration loss (Mark Grudzielanek? Really?) -- implying that they won’t fight for their clients and that when they do they lose. It also dredges up five-year-old dirt on ACES on a matter for which the agency was absolved, which is pretty low rent in my view. Meanwhile, it leaves out the fact that ACES is noted for getting good long term deals and that Blackmon is on record as wanting to strike a long term deal with the Rockies, which matches them up quite nicely.
The biggest problem I have with it, though, is that it’s just wrong on the baseball stuff. Blackmon is a guy who will turn 32 next season. He’s also a guy who calls Coors Field home and has shown some pretty massive home/road splits throughout his career, particularly in his career year in 2017 (.391/.466/.733 at Coors; .276/.337/.447 on the road). I’m not disparaging Blackmon here -- he’s a great player -- but he’s not Bryce Harper or Josh Donaldson and the one-year deal he and his agents negotiated for him seems pretty darn good to me.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. Given everything I realized I did not know about arbitration last week, I felt like I should get a second opinion on that, so I asked a person deeply involved with the arbitration process about it. My source -- who tends to lean to the players’ side of things -- told me "$14 million is a solid result for Charlie Blackmon.” That view has been echoed by others around the industry. I haven’t seen anything outside of the Heyman piece that suggests people are thinking otherwise about it.
At the end of the day, Charlie Blackmon got his money and will once again terrorize opposing pitchers from the leadoff position in 2018. In the process, we got a glimpse into how the sausage is made in the world of agents. It’s some pretty rotten sausage sometimes.