Then the season came, and Nieto’s performance fell a bit below scouts’ expectations. Nieto’s team — he played for my old high school, American Heritage — was loaded, and included Eric Hosmer, Nick Castellanos, Deven Marrero and ace J.C. Sulbaran. I was at every game on their march to their first state championship, and Nieto homered from both sides of the plate in the final game, capping off his difficult year in fine fashion. I was fortunate enough to be hired by both Nieto and Sulbaran before the draft, and with that came the biggest opportunities of my draft career up to that point.
On draft day, Nieto was at my office with his parents, listening to the draft on a laptop in a huge conference room. First round, no phone calls. Second round, no phone calls. Third round, still no phone calls.
Nothing changed until the fifth, when the Washington Nationals selected him without even having called us beforehand. Despite his having fallen, the Nats selecting him without warning was the best outcome that could have occurred, since we hadn’t agreed upon any terms, which would have robbed our side of a lot of leverage.
Then we waited.
Months went by with no contact. Then, while on a road trip to California a week before the signing deadline (Darren Ford had just been traded for Ray Durham and sent to the Cal League), I got a call from Nationals general manager Jim Bowden at 6 a.m. PT. I’ll never forget that call.
First, it was unexpected. Second, it was a conference call with the entire front office, and it caught me completely off guard. I had to ask Bowden if I could call him back so I could get my composure privately before talking to the club. (Remember, the club called me directly, thus possibly violating NCAA rules against negotiating with an advisor, but this was in the Wild West days when things like this happened all the time.)
I was 26 years old and just building a name for myself in the business, so this was not a deal I could afford to screw up. I called Nationals scouting director Dana Brown and asked him why Bowden had called me, and he told me just to call Bowden back. I did, and the strangest call of my career ensued.
Bowden had me on speaker and informed me that the entire front office was in the room — including Brown and assistant GMs Bob Boone and Mike Rizzo — and that he "wanted to know where we stood with regard to signing Nieto."
I stated my case quite plainly, and in the middle of it was interrupted by Bowden, who was screaming at me, saying, "I bet you want $500K," to which I responded, "Sure, why not?"
Bowden exploded on me in front of his front office, and at the tail end of the call, Bowden said to tell Nieto to have fun in college and that they would just draft him again in three years when Scott Boras was his agent, which prompted me to say, "Jim, good luck with your legal problems." (At the time, Bowden, along with Pedro Borbon was being investigated for skimming signing bonuses from Latin prospects.)
That set him off even more, and I hung up. This was probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever said to an executive, except for the time I was accused by one club of telling players that I had its front office in my back pocket. That time, I told the portly executive who’d made the accusation, "With all due respect, I don’t think you could fit in my back pocket." Stupid. I’m grateful that my 20s are over.
I flew back to Florida the next day and received another unexpected call, this time from Rizzo, who delivered one of the funniest lines I’ve heard in my career: "Hi, Josh, this is Mike Rizzo of the Nationals. Jim doesn’t want to talk to you anymore, so I am taking over negotiations for Nieto."
The slot for Nieto’s pick was $180K. Washington’s top-five picks remained unsigned until five days before the deadline, and they ultimately failed to sign their top pick Aaron Crow. I was worried that one of those other guys would get the overslot dollars before Nieto, since he was the last member of the group drafted.
I asked for $500K, hoping to get $400K. The Nationals offered double the slot, $360K. I said that I’d have to ask Nieto, who gave me the OK. Then I did a very "Josh" thing: I told Rizzo I needed a favor and that while I could get Nieto signed ASAP, I wanted $376K.
Rizzo asked how I came up with that number. I said a fourth-round catcher the previous year from the same area had received $375K, and I wanted to make a statement I was a better agent than the guy who had gone in the fourth round.
Rizzo asked if it was Nieto or me driving this request. I asked Rizzo if he wanted the honest answer or the BS answer, and he said he preferred the honest answer. I confessed that it was 100 percent me.
Rizzo laughed pretty hard and said he would give Nieton $376K — $1K more than the previous year’s fourth-round catcher (who was taken by the Twins) … because I’d been honest. I drove Nieto to the Nationals spring training site in Melbourne, Fla., for his physical, and the contract was signed that day. The $376K he received was the most money given to any player taken in his round that year.
Now that Nieto has been in the big leagues, this is mostly just a funny anecdote between the two of us. However, it was also by far the strangest negotiation I’ve ever had.
That year, I also had to handle the Sulbaran negotiation. He was all but guaranteed to head to the University of Florida, and he fell accordingly in the draft. He dropped all the way to the 30th round, selected by Cincinnati.
After the draft, the Reds made a very big push to sign Sulbaran. The first offer was $150K and was quickly rejected. The second offer was $250K, and that too was rejected. By the deadline, Sulbaran was playing in Holland against Pudge Rodriguez, striking him out in impressive fashion.
I came up with an idea: Instead of leveraging the threat of attending college, why not leverage the possibility of Sulbaran’s playing as a pro in Holland for a year then becoming a free agent?
This took the Reds by surprise and scared them enough to double their offer to $500K, then a record for the round, after Sulbaran’s amazing international performance for his age. I actually landed him a tax-free offer in Holland, and he was serious about heading there had the Reds not signed him.
Sulbaran eventually took the Reds’ offer, but we needed a slight extension to get the contract turned in because he was in Holland. The Reds dealt with the commissioner’s office and were allowed extra time to turn in the paperwork.
I no longer work with Sulbaran, but this too was one of the most bizarre negotiations I’d been a part of given the fact that I was threatening the club with the idea that my cllient could actually turn pro in Holland then become a free agent. All that fuss for a 30th-round pick.
Sulbaran’s $500K bonus was a record that stood for a long time, and it helped me make a name for myself. Soon after, I landed several high-profile draft picks and a first-rounder for 2010.
But the main point is the draft is broken, and I want zero part of it unless it’s an extreme circumstance in which I absolutely need to step in to help someone or in which I could make a significant fee. If a guy going first overall wanted to hire me, I’d be insane to turn that down, but short of that scenario I want no part of the draft, the NCAA, or the recruitment process and would much prefer to focus on guys who are already playing.
Joshua Kusnick is an MLBPA-certified agent who periodically writes about his experiences representing professional players. You can reach him via email at JoshuaKusnick@aol.com and on Twitter @JoshuaKusnick.