When Is Too Much Scott Boras, Too Much?
When the Washington Nationals sign Stephen Drew officially as their utility infielder, it will mean they currently have seven Scott Boras clients on their likely 25-man roster. That is 28 percent of all players or slightly more than one-in-four. Is it too much?
For purposes of comparison, of the two World Series teams in 2015, the New York Mets have only Matt Harvey represented by Boras and the Kansas City Royals have five players or 20 percent of their 25-man roster similarly tied to him. The Royals were built much the way the Nationals were: through the amateur draft where Boras represents a very significant portion of the top players taken each year in the Rule 4 Draft. For example, the Royals Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were both taken in the first three picks of their respective draft classes and are represented by Boras.
Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper were similarly chosen and are part of the heavy presence Boras has with the Nationals. Free agent additions Max Scherzer and Jayson Werth are Boras clients and so it is easy to see how the most prestigious baseball representative has gained a foothold in the Nationals clubhouse. At a Scott Boras presentation to the Smithsonian Associates last year, Boras said that the Lerner family had called him shortly after buying the Nationals to ask his advice. He said he told them they needed to lose badly before they could get better, which they did.
There is more to the story than Scott Boras. It is the tale of an organization struggling to gain legitimacy in the old boy world of professional baseball. When the Nationals were sold to the Lerner Family in 2006, Commissioner Bud Selig insisted that Stan Kasten be added to the original ownership group to give them credibility and knowledge of the game. But when Kasten was put in charge of building the franchise, he failed to sign Aaron Crow as one of the team’s top draft picks and the job subsequently was handed to Mike Rizzo. Those signability questions led to considerable nervousness around the team’s ability to land Stephen Strasburg and many in DC doubted whether the team could pull it off. Rizzo’s ability to sign both Harper and Strasburg made the Lerner’s believers in his talents and they parted company with Kasten.
It has been rumored that Ted Lerner, the principal owner of the team, has a warm relationship with Scott Boras. No doubt part of it is the same respect for the uber-agent that made the Lerners ask his advice ten years ago. But the relationship has certainly grown exponentially. The Nationals pursuit of Mark Teixeira in 2009 failed ultimately, but their bid for the slugger’s services was reputed to have been higher than the Yankees. Some speculated that the Nationals bid was used by Boras to drive the market higher. But those concerns were quieted when Jayson Werth signed the next year. His decision to sign in Washington was another that gave credibility to the young franchise and its ownership, again thanks to Scott Boras.
The bottom line is that the team owes something to Boras for its current status as a contender. But at what point is the debt paid and at what point is too much too much?
Stephen Drew is the last of the Drew brothers. His brothers Tim and J.D. Drew were represented by Scott Boras and all were highly regarded prospects taken in the first round of the draft. Stephen Drew was taken in the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2006, which is where Mike Rizzo cut his teeth as a baseball scout and front office administrator. But the fact of the matter is that “Dirt,” as Stephen Drew is known, has scuffled in recent years and failed to break the Mendoza Line for much of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. He did hit .2o1 over 383 atbats for the New York Yankees in 2015, a deep lack of distinction mitigated at least partially by 17 home runs. And he still plays a solid second base–Baseball Reference gives him a .4 Defensive WAR in 2015.
But is Stephen Drew the best utility man that $3 million will buy in today’s market? Ostensibly the money not only buys Drew, but also buys Trea Turner another year of seasoning at Triple-A Syracuse. And that is a good thing. But then again there is that old question from the draft. Is he the best available or is he a favor to Boras for past help in climbing up the ladder from obscurity?
There is nothing the least bit unseemly in the signing of Drew. He can play the infield as well as anyone that the Nationals were likely to sign, but the heavy preponderance of Scott Boras clients on the Washington roster raises questions. The Nationals pursued high-profile free agents in December but failed to sign Ben Zobrist, Darren O’Day and Jason Heyward, none of whom is a Boras client. Neither is Daniel Murphy who did sign with Washington, but the question lingers.
When is too much Scott Boras too much? The answer involves the Washington Nationals beginning to move more effectively out of a comfort zone largely defined by their past dealings with Boras.
The Nationals have not been successful developing any significant talent except at the very top of the draft. Last year’s lineup card featured Ian Desmond, Michael Taylor and Danny Espinosa, all of whom were third round choices. All three slso have significant holes in their game–or at least their swing. Wilson Ramos was brought in via trade as was Gio Gonzalez. Mike Rizzo has shown that he can pull off trades to bolster his team, but the team needs proven talent from within its organization to balance out any trade. How many more Steven Souza’s–their young outfielder traded for Joe Ross and Trea Turner–do they have? Sadly there are just not that many and Rizzo is hamstrung by the thin talent below.
The vast preponderance of Washington players were garnered by high draft picks, beginning with Ryan Zimmerman in 2007 and they have not signed a meaningful free agent not represented by Boras. There is little to suggest that the organization can develop talent through its minor league organization unless there is a six-figure bonus attached to their names. Jordan Zimmermann was the only real internal development bonus to come through the organization and he was a second round pick, hardly a stealth choice.
The Lerners have deep pockets and the Washington media market will one day pay enough to make the team competitive with most of the larger market teams. But to be successful, teams need to develop talent from somewhere other than the top ten draft picks and predictable free agent signings. To develop a World Series caliber team the Nationals will have to improve on their organizational development capabilities and look outside their usual comfort zone for free agent talent, picking up some bargains as well as the obvious choices regardless whether they come via Boras.
One important upcoming test will be A.J. Cole who was not exactly a 30th round choice–going in the 4th round while garnering a first round bonus of $2 million. But he has been groomed in the Washington system almost exclusively. The Nationals need s success story and Cole’s ability to gain a toehold in the majors he may be at least as important to the team as Lucas Giolitto. Wilmer Difo and Victor Robles are among the only international signings that look to have a significant future with the Nationals and the inability to sign and develop talent from outside the United States is another substantive shortcoming of the organization.
Trying to sign Jayson Heyward was a start, but the Nationals need to continue to look for new horizons. The old ones have done about as much as they can. The results have been good to date. But there is still a lot of real estate left between the the current organization built by the Lerner Family and the winner’s circle that they so desperately want to claim.