Is a Boras bluff in the Cards?
Pity the poor St. Louis Cardinals, the biggest marks this offseason. Scott Boras trained his crosshairs on them, and after combing through his varied ordnance, he can settle on his version of the A-bomb.
Yes, the Mystery Team, which joins the other 30 in Major League Baseball around this time every year, is bound to return. The Mystery Team is a favorite Boras gambit, and that is saying something, as Boras’ brilliance is defined, in large part, by his garish overplays that annually dupe businessmen who in the last 20 years have quintupled their industry’s revenues.
Here is how it works: Boras, the superagent, takes his prized client to free agency. If the market is robust, Boras proceeds as usual. Should it not spike to his liking, as has happened this offseason with Matt Holliday(notes), suddenly, and predictably, word leaks that another team or two are interested in said free agent.
The Mystery Team stirs up excitement. Who is it? Is the bid competitive? Why so … mysterious? And most pointed: Does the Mystery Team really exist? Probably so. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter.
Because the Mystery Team creates the illusion of a market, a neat bit of trickery that forces the truly interested – in this case, the Cardinals – to reassess the strength of their bid and turns confident executives into second-guessers. Whether the Cardinals are offering Holliday a five- or eight-year deal – both have been reported – matters not anymore. The implied interest of the Baltimore Orioles (really, now) and the fray-joining Mystery Team turns an amicable Cardinals-Holliday slow dance into an elaborate waltz.
Already the questions for St. Louis were difficult enough. The team wants to keep its payroll below $100 million. The Cardinals must balance the present need for a bat to protect Albert Pujols(notes) with the future need to re-sign Pujols – almost certainly at $25 million-plus a season for at least six years. Bringing back Holliday – the left fielder who mashed to a 1.023 OPS over the final 10 weeks in St. Louis – could cost another $100 million and change.
The only teams with multiple $100 million-plus players are the New York Yankees and New York Mets, whose financial advantages support such luxuries. The Cardinals, built so well the last two years by general manager John Mozeliak and assistant GM John Abbamondi and scouting chief Jeff Luhnow and manager Tony La Russa, cringe at the margin of error under which they would operate with Pujols and Holliday eating up more than 40 percent of their payroll.
And yet they shudder, too, at the possibility of Pujols grinding through another season supported by a balsa wood lineup, one that Holliday so ably fortified when the Cardinals acquired him from the Oakland Athletics in July. The Cardinals were better with Holliday. They were, playoff flameout notwithstanding, dangerous with him.
Which leaves Mozeliak in the worst sort of Catch-22. Not only does signing Holliday hamper building the rest of his team, and not only does letting Holliday leave neuter it short-term, Mozeliak must make the decision how to proceed with a stone-cold assassin reminding him just how valuable Holliday is, and how it would be a shame to lose him over a year here or a couple million there.
Boras’ tactics don’t work on everyone. Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno immediately dismissed the notion of signing Holliday, who last year bought a house in Orange County, Calif., and enjoys the area. Moreno does so with almost every Boras client, unwilling to play games and parry the rhetoric. Of course, Moreno is the same owner who passed up center fielder Carlos Beltran(notes) at $119 million for Steve Finley(notes) at $14 million … and Gary Matthews Jr.(notes) at $50 million … and Torii Hunter(notes) at $90 million.
So goes Borasian logic, a nonstop centrifuge of obfuscated facts and blinding data. Boras would be a god in Washington if he hadn’t devoted his life to the noble craft of making baseball players rich.
Because he has done that so many times, from Alex Rodriguez’s(notes) dueling $250 million-plus deals to Mark Teixeira’s(notes) $180 million bomb last offseason to the nine-figure payouts for Beltran and Kevin Brown, there comes that expectation. Boras will ask for the moon, and though sometimes he settles for stardust – Stephen Stasburg didn’t get $50 million after all – he still is capable of contorting every negotiation he enters.
“I’m not sure where Scott’s going to find the money he wants,” an executive from a team not interested in Holliday said earlier this week. “Is there really a market for him?”
A market is only as big as one desperate team. When it looked as though the bidding for Barry Zito(notes) would stop at the $102 million Texas was offering during the winter of 2006, the Mystery Team appeared. The Rangers refused to budge from their mark, and the Mets certainly weren’t going into that range for a pitcher of Zito’s caliber, and both of those teams called Boras’ bluff, daring him to get the Mystery Team to beat their offers and take Zito elsewhere.
As much as they hate to admit it, the San Francisco Giants, $126 million later, can attest that this Mystery Team did exist. So as Boras lets the Cardinals know they’re not alone in this thing and tries to convince them they’re not bidding against themselves, Mozeliak and the rest of the front office can try to ferret out every possible identity of the Mystery Team and examine its true threat only to draw the same conclusion.
It doesn’t matter.