Rooting for Management


The Philadelphia Phillies reportedly made a very curious decision recently. After drafting college junior Ben Wetzler in the fifth round of the June draft, the club and player could not reach an agreement on a contract and the Wetzler opted to return to Oregon State for his senior season. A tough choice, as college seniors have little in the way of leverage in negotiations after they’re drafted for the final time.

The Phillies, for whatever reason, took it upon themselves to report Wetzler to the NCAA for consorting with an agent, a violation of the collegiate body’s rules that could result in the left-handed pitcher losing eligibility for his final season.

In terms of real life, that’s pretty messed up. An enormous and wealthy corporation, run by the best in their field (and also Ruben Amaro Jr.) versus a college kid, an “amateur” athlete trying to secure what could be the only big payday of his sporting life.

Hey, rules are rules and if the kid hired an agent to negotiate on his behalf, he broke the rules. These rules might by arcane and borderline criminal and support a wholly corrupt and exploitive body like the NCAA, but they remain the rules. But why would the Phillies decide to play the role of sheriff in this case, going out of their way to essentially ruin Ben Wetzler’s final collegiate baseball season?

Baseball, of all games, if full of unwritten rules. One widely respected unwritten rule in the draft is the “kids will bring in advisors and nobody bats an eye” when it comes to negotiations.

Which doesn’t mean “accidents” don’t happen from time to time. The Toronto Blue Jays originally drafted Mariners blue chip starter James Paxton in the 2009 draft but, as it their wont, couldn’t sign the right-hander. A few weeks later, CEO Paul Beeston made some off-hand comment in the press about Scott Boras’ involvement in the negotiations between Toronto and Paxton. The NCAA investigated and Paxton lost his eligibility, floating in Indy ball purgatory until the Mariners selected him in the fourth round the following year.

Were Beeston’s comments innocent, a slip of the tongue at the wrong time? Or was this the Jays front office passive aggressively blowing the same whistle the Phillies used on Wetzler.

There is so, so much money in the game right now. The owners wield so much power, securing the lion’s share of revenue in the latest collective bargaining agreement – the same CBA that saw the union siphon draft dollars away from non-members like Wetzler in exchange for increasing salaries at the big league level. Every advantage is tilted towards the owners, who aren’t required to open their books yet somehow every single contract detail for every single player is leaked and publicized on dozens of websites.

So many fans harbor intense animosity and straight-up resentment for the amount of money players make (this is not new.) The tongue clucking and unchecked glee with which “player X made Y dollars and is now broke!” are shared around only serves to underscore the prevailing notion that nobody should make such a large sum playing ” a child’s game” yet an art collector born on third base can weasel his way into owning a team while proudly crowing about the triple he just lashed to the gap. It’s an ugly side of the sports fandom that is only getting worse.

While the TV riches float the top end of the salary tax brackets up, they might end up having the reverse effect on salaries in some markets. As the TV revenue begins dwarfing other sources of income for teams, the incentive to spend and “buy” a competitive team lessens, does it not? Why spend extra money when the impact on your bottom line is negligible? Clubs cry poor and cite budgets when they aren’t poor and their budgets are in place to save them from themselves, mostly.

This, admittedly, doesn’t have much to do with the greasy Phillies flexing on a fifth round draft pick. Perhaps the club that just inked a $2.5 billion TV deal with their regional sports network didn’t like the tone of the negotiations or perhaps Wetzler did some particularly unsavory negotiating, leaving “good faith” as nothing more than a distant memory. Who knows?

It just seems like a very strange breech of protocol for the Phillies, who gain…nothing from the decision to all but pull the plug on Wetzler’s NCAA chances in 2014, as the player was suspended indefinitely this week.

This isn’t the whole story, it just happened to break this week. This case has been ongoing since November, according to reports. The Phillies issued a “no comment” on the issue and the player himself is yet to speak on the issue. It is simply another brick in the wall for those general uncomfortable with the manner in which their ballpark franks are made. Do not peak behind the curtain if you’re squeamish, the stuff you see fed into this meat grinder is not for the faint of heart.

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