Scott Boras, the most brilliant man in baseball, its greatest scourge or perhaps both, likes to compare himself to a prospector. And it might be apt if gold nuggets actually leapt into pans.
No, Boras is far more: He is a magnet for potential, for potential greatness, and for all that comes with it, like greed and jealousy and name-calling. Never is this more evident than the day Major League Baseball's annual amateur draft winds down, when Boras, the superagent, begins the negotiations for his handful of hand-picked clients. Numbers that sound more like lottery jackpots than signing bonuses bounce around, and as team executives ponder whether these really are, as Boras deems them, "premium players" – kids who haven't swung a bat or thrown a pitch in a professional setting worthy of millions of dollars – a reality sets in.
Boras doesn't set the market. Boras has become the market.
"I understand the business of the draft," he said Friday morning. "Truth is, the problem we face is that when the draft takes place, no one knows why we're asking what we're asking. Generally, the draft means high risk, and this guy is putting clubs through forced leverage and causing acrimony, and therefore we're bad for the game."
Major League Baseball, faced with a man who outwitted them by branding his players and seeing many of them go onto great success, has tried its best to put clamps on Boras' ability to coax large signing bonuses out of willing owners. They instituted a slotting system, which suggests a dollar value that teams should pay for a certain pick. And this year, MLB mandated that players sign by Aug. 15 to prevent them from holdouts that linger through the winter, the spring and end up bolstering independent league rosters.
To Boras, all of this is a transparent joke that neuters the free market even more than the existing rules. If baseball wants a draft in which the best players go to the best teams, he said, it should allow the trading of draft picks. Otherwise, every year, a player like Rick Porcello – the right-hander out of Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey whom Boras, as well as a handful of scouts, describe as the next Josh Beckett – will end up drafted at No. 27 by the Detroit Tigers instead going No. 2 to the Kansas City Royals, because, as Boras said, "The market for the elite player that doesn't carry the customary risks is only five to seven teams."
Though Boras looks the bully, he's nothing more than the person playing off baseball's flaccid will. When Frank Coonelly, MLB's lawyer who determines the slots, asks for teams to stick to them, it isn't so much ironclad law as it is pretty-pretty-please imploring. Some teams heed it, and those that don't – those whose pockets tend to run deep – tend to emerge the winners.
Instead of Porcello, the Royals chose high school infielder Mike Moustakas, another Boras client expected to demand a lesser bonus, at No. 2. Boras likes how the Royals are building their organization. Last year, with the first overall pick, they chose pitcher and Boras client Luke Hochevar, who had held out the previous season and pitched in an independent league before re-entering the draft. In 2005, they signed third baseman Alex Gordon to the heftiest amateur contract the franchise had doled out, and this offseason they shoveled $55 million at free-agent pitcher Gil Meche.
At the same time, the Royals are aware that if they lowball Moustakas, he can go to USC for three years and possibly drastically increase his bonus in the 2010 draft.
Boras estimates that every year he gets calls from 150 parents asking him to represent their son. Usually, he ends up with a dozen or so new clients. He tells the rest that there's a 98 percent chance the kid will never make the major leagues, and for the ones who do, the chance of them making it past their sixth season – their first shot at free-agent riches – is even less.
It's why Boras takes on Porcello and Moustakas and Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters (No. 5 to the Baltimore Orioles) and Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta (No. 7 to the Milwaukee Brewers) and 6-foot-10 North Carolina State pitcher Andrew Brackman (No. 30 to the New York Yankees): To settle would be to water down the standard he set and, accordingly, the image he created.
Boras enjoys citing numbers – the fruits of a computer system in his office whose processors occupy an entire room – and one of his draft-related favorites is the success of his clients whose bonuses were at least $4 million. Eight of the nine – including Mark Teixeira, J.D. Drew and Jered Weaver – have made the major leagues. The ninth is Kansas City's Hochevar.
And while teams are likelier to bring up the multi-million-dollar bonus babies simply to justify some return on investment – Boston's Craig Hansen has been a bust thus far, as was Jeremy Guthrie before his resurgence this year in Baltimore – Boras' highest-end clients tend to meet their hype, even if the numbers that Coonelly and MLB counter with indicate otherwise.
"We don't represent a lot of players," Boras said, "and there's a reason: We want to make sure these players become what we say they're going to. We're not asking you to pay for something that isn't there.
"For the premium player, there will always be demand."
Boras will continue to push those boundaries, as he has since holding out one of his first clients, the No. 1 pick in 1983, pitcher Tim Belcher, for a whole season. He snagged Todd Van Poppel the first million-dollar bonus in 1990 and exceeded it the next year with Brien Taylor.
Almost always, the clients he encouraged not to sign ended up with the money they sought, which is why he views the Aug. 15 deadline not necessarily as an impediment to him but also as an unfortunate mechanism that could further push African-Americans out of the sport. With college baseball teams allowing only 11.7 scholarships, and major league teams able to give draft picks take-it-or-leave-it offers, and the allure of football and basketball omnipresent – well, does baseball really want to do that?
It's classic Boras, spinning something meant to rein him in into something troubling for the game, and it's what makes him so fascinating. The Aug. 15 deadline will come quickly. Two months isn't very long for him to get 10 players signed.
So, what did he spend the day after the draft doing?
"This morning," Boras said, "we started looking at film of next year's players."