It’s totally unfair to judge agents solely based on free agency. While the task of securing the best contract falls to agents, this is merely a fraction of their total responsibility. They have to negotiate draft or signing bonuses, guide their charge through all levels of the farm system, manage sponsorships (such as with equipment companies), negotiate arbitration or extensions, and answer many other unseen and unknown calls along the way.
That being said, every player dreams of that big free agent payday. Yes, it’s about the money (as it rightfully ought to be), but often for the first time in each player’s career, they can finally choose their own path. It’s imperative to have an agent who will put them in the best possible situation.
Again, this is a completely unfair and insufficient way to evaluate them, but... we’re going to do it anyway!
Meet the agents
Players basically have three options with regards to agents: 1) Choose a representation powerhouse with lots of high profile clients. 2) Sign with a smaller agent who might have a more personal relationship. 3) Self-representation. This year’s free agents were pretty evenly split between options one and two, while only David Robertson self-represented.
Shortly, we’ll look at 42 of the most sought-after free agents of the winter. These are players who appeared on both the MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 Free Agents as well as the FanGraphs counterpart. 21 of them were represented by four of the biggest agency firms:
- Scott Boras (seven players)
- ACES (six players)
- Excel Sports Management (four players)
- MVP Sports Group (four players)
The other 21 players were represented by an agent that only one or two clients in free agency (including Robertson). Some of these are small firms or even solo operations. Others are fairly large, such as CAA or Roc Nation, but they just happened not to have a lot of free agent clients this year.
First, the heavy hitters...
As is often the case, Boras was the busiest agent this winter. His clients are:
- Bryce Harper: 13 years, $330 million
- Hyun-Jin Ryu: one year, 17.9 million (qualifying offer)
- Yusei Kikuchi: four years, $56 million
- Zack Britton: three years, $39 million
- Matt Harvey: one year, $11 million
- Marwin Gonzalez: two years $21 million
- Mike Moustakas: one year, $10 million
By accepting the qualifying offer, Ryu took himself out of the fray. This still counts as a Boras contract, however. Undoubtedly, Ryu’s decision to take the offer was advised by his agent.
In total, these seven Boras clients signed for 25 years and $484.9 million. Naturally, Harper is the headliner. However, an eighth Boras client remains unsigned: Dallas Keuchel. Since we’re scoring agents in this exercise, we can’t really evaluate an unsigned player. It certainly doesn’t reflect well that his second highest profile client has no job in April.
Five of the six ACES clients are pitchers, naturally.
- Nathan Eovaldi: four years $67.5 million
- Daniel Murphy: two years $24 million
- Jeurys Familia: three years, $30 million
- Adam Ottavino: three years, $27 million
- Joe Kelly: three years, $25 million
- Gio Gonzalez: one year, $3 million (minor league contract)
The relievers all signed similar contracts. Eovaldi took home the biggest deal by length, total dollars, and AAV. Failing to secure a major league contract for established starter Gio Gonzalez is a disappointment.
Some of the best batters on the market chose Excel.
- Michael Brantley, two years, $32 million
- A.J. Pollock, four years, $55 million
- Lance Lynn, three years, $30 million
- Jed Lowrie, two years, $20 million
Pollock landed a big contract despite declining the qualifying offer. Most people would be surprised that Brantley only received two years, while Lynn got three. The Lynn contract is especially a head-scratcher compared to the Gio Gonzalez minor league deal.
MVP had one of the biggest names of the winter.
- Manny Machado, ten years, $300 million
- Josh Donaldson, one year, $23 million
- Kurt Suzuki, two years, $10 million
- Martin Maldonado, one year, $2.5 million
Aside from the Machado contract, which was a record for a few days until Harper signed, Donaldson’s pillow contract will enjoy a high AAV.
There are 21 players in this category, and we don’t need to list all of them. Patrick Corbin’s six year, $140 million is the biggest contract, with Andrew McCutchen’s three year, $50 million a distant second.
ISE Baseball (Corbin and Garrett Richards) and The Wasserman Group (D.J. LeMahieu and Kelvin Herrera) each of have two clients. Sixteen other agents have one, and then there’s David Robertson as well.
Just as Keuchel is an asterisk for Boras, Craig Kimbrel is a blemish for the “everyone else” category. His eventual contract probably won’t match up to the projections, and it’s a bad look for him to be sitting at home after the season starts.
To find out which agents snagged the best deals, we need to establish a baseline. It would be easy to say Bryce Harper’s contract is better than Martin Maldonado’s, but they aren’t of the same caliber.
We need to set a reasonable expectation for what each payer should have earned in free agency. On the MLB Trade Rumors list, they predict a contract for each player. Kiley McDaniel did the same on the FanGraphs version, and he also compiled crowdsourced predictions. By averaging the three together, we can determine a fair expectation for each contract by years, total money, and average annual value (AAV). These expected contracts can be compared to the players’ eventual deals (only guaranteed money included).
Here’s how each agency group fared compared to their composite projections. (You can view the full spreadsheet here.)
Agent Rankings (all $ are millions)
|Agency Group||Difference Years||Difference Total||Difference AAV|
|Agency Group||Difference Years||Difference Total||Difference AAV|
ACES and Excel clients both hit their projections for contract years on the nose. The other groups all fell shy by about half a year per client.
Not many free agents at all beat their projections. In case you haven’t noticed, free agency didn’t go very well this year. With regards to total guaranteed money, ACES once again comes out on top. Their clients only fell short of projected dollars by about $1 million each. Eovaldi will take home $16.7 million more than expected, but the Gio Gonzalez minor league deal negates it.
The MVP Group lost an average of $10.27 million in total dollars per client, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Machado was projected to earn $314 million, so while he missed out by $14 million, it’s relatively close considering the enormity of the deal. Donaldson’s one year deal was probably a strategic choice, and he would have undoubtedly earned more on a multiyear deal.
AAV might be the best way to evaluate contracts. The “everyone else” group wins that category, with these players averaging more than half million per year above expectations. Boras and MVP aren’t far behind.
Pollock and Lowrie bring down Excel, with AAV $2.4 and $1.9 million below projections. As a result, the four player group missed out on $1.3 million per year altogether.
Ironically, the free agent who earned the best AAV against their projection wasn’t really a free agent at all. Hyun-Jin Ryu could’ve expected $13.1 million AAV on the open market, but accepted the $17.9 million qualifying offer. Less surprising is finding Gio Gonzalez at the opposite end, failing to hit his $11.5 million AAV and settling for a $3 million (non-guaranteed) contract.
To be clear, none of this data is significant for numerous reasons. There’s just not enough data from one offseason to make any conclusions about an agent. Players should choose an agent with whom they feel most comfortable for their own reasons, especially since so few of them ever reach major league free agency.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983