The Philadelphia Phillies may have been hoping to expose Oregon State left-hander Ben Wetzler as a rule-breaker, but they succeeded only in exposing themselves as petty and vindictive.
While the Phillies may get some measure of satisfaction by turning Wetzler in to the NCAA, their actions are drawing widespread criticism from player agents and may jeopardize relationships with future draft picks.
Let’s start with the basics.
The Phillies drafted Ben Wetzler out of Oregon State in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, but they did not reach an agreement with the left-hander, who opted to return to school for his senior year instead of taking the Phillies’ offer.
While negotiating with the Phillies, Wetzler relied on the in-person counsel of an ‘advisor,’ an MLBPA-certified agent acting in an unofficial capacity as a player representative. It’s what hundreds of amateur players do on an annual basis, though it’s technically in violation of NCAA rules. The rules allow student athletes to receive advice from a lawyer or agent, but those advisors may not negotiate on behalf of the players or be present during contract discussions (including email and phone negotiations).
This is where Wetlzer’s story takes an unusual turn. The Phillies informed the NCAA in November that Wetzler had violated rules by allowing his agent to attend negotiations. (They also exposed Jason Monda, a sixth rounder out of Washington State, who has since been cleared to participate in the 2014 season).
No longer able to turn a blind eye to a process that is widely accepted by all involved, the NCAA suspended Wetzler for 11 games because he “sought help from an agent who attended meetings where Wetzler negotiated contract terms with the team.”
At minimum the suspension will be an unwelcome distraction for Wetzler. At worst, the decision could keep him off of the field long enough to effect his draft standing in 2014. The issue is very much on the radar of MLBPA executive director Tony Clark.
“What we’re doing in the short-term is trying to make sure we understand exactly what happened and what led to what happened with that young man in college,” Clark told reporters in Dunedin, Fla. Monday. “Rest assured it’s a concern, it’s something that we’re paying attention to, but outside what’s been bantered about through the media, we don’t know much else at this point and time.”
The Phillies, meanwhile, have been quiet about their role in turning Wetlzer in. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. acknowledged that he was aware his organization turned the prospects in, but declined to elaborate, directing reporters to a team statement.
“The Phillies did participate in the NCAA investigation and a ruling has been issued," the team stated. "We believe it is inappropriate to comment further on either the negotiation with the player or the action taken by the NCAA."
If the Phillies don’t want to say anything more, that’s their prerogative. But then outsiders can only assume that the Phillies’ decision was driven by pettiness.
The recent controversy also underscores a larger issue: how are amateur players as young as 17 years old expected to defend their rights in negotiations with corporations worth billions? Though owners would no doubt profit if advisors were removed from the picture, ethical questions arise when players -- often minors -- are denied the right to representation.
“It's a life changing decision,” one agent says. “There is a lot of money on the line. They haven't done it before. Why can't they have someone help them?”
Many agents experienced in advising draftees privately agree that the decision was childish and vindictive on the part of the Phillies. Not only do agents serve the players, their involvement allows teams to negotiate with experienced professionals instead of players and parents going through a potentially daunting experience for the first time.
Perhaps a mis-communication led the Phillies to believe the players would be available at a certain price. If that’s the case, it would be understandable for the Phillies to be frustrated and it would be impossible for them to comment in more detail given that pre-draft deals are against MLB rules. But even then, the Phillies should be prepared to handle the situation without turning the players in to the NCAA.
Because the Phillies turned Wetzler and Monda in, agents will reconsider their dealings with the club in the interest of self-preservation. This could mean Amaro’s signing scouts no longer have the customary level of access to players and their families. Instead of sending a message, the Phillies could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
“I think it was extremely short-sighted and impulsive on the part of the team,” one experienced agent says. Others agree. There’s no obvious explanation for what the Phillies did, and Amaro isn’t publicly offering a complete explanation.
Even as many continue to question the Phillies’ decision, Amaro told reporters this past weekend, "I think our reputation is very good.”