COLUMBIA — In November, the Philadelphia Phillies reported Oregon State left-hander Ben Wetzler for having used an outside representative in negotiations after being drafted — a violation of the NCAA’s “no agent” rule. Wetzler was ineligible to compete until the NCAA issued a ruling on his case, and eventually it did — issuing an 11-game suspension.
There are ways to avoid situations like this. Just ask Missouri sophomore pitcher Alec Rash and his father, Mike Rash.
Alec was also drafted by the Phillies. He also declined to sign. But Alec's situation differed from Wetzler's because Alec and his father played it by the book, despite the advances from multiple representatives — a rarity in a draft process that often has players breaking the rules with no repercussions.
Alec, an Adel, Iowa, native, first heard the Wetzler story from some friends back home, who brought it to his attention because of his connection with the Phillies.
Alec did not travel with the Tigers for their opening series because of a separate team suspension that had nothing to do with agent-player relations.
But it can be tricky for athletes to maintain amateur eligibility while keeping informed and prepared about the draft process.
Not an industry secret
The fact that Rash or Wetzler didn’t sign is not necessarily unusual. As it often happens, teams have one signing bonus total in mind and players have another. If nobody bends, the player either goes to school — depending on their status — or can sign with an independent league team.
Using an adviser or agent, though illegal, is also not unusual. The NCAA has drawn heavy criticism for even allowing the "no agent" rule to exist in the first place, but its wording isn’t vague. Article 12.3.1 of the Operating Bylaws says: “An individual shall be ineligible for participation in an intercollegiate sport if he or she ever has agreed (orally or in writing) to be represented by an agent for purpose of marketing his or her athletics ability or reputation in that sport.”
MLB teams typically don’t bother reporting violations to the NCAA. And the use of agents is not exactly an industry secret.
A "Baseball America" report in 2008 detailed the practice, including a statement from an American League scouting director: “Every single player that we deal with … has representation, has an agent,” he said.
That makes it difficult to resist agents.
“It’s tough for us to tell kids, ‘Hey, don’t have one,’ when their buddy has one and didn’t have anything happen to him,” said Missouri assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Kerrick Jackson, who was once a scouting supervisor with the Washington Nationals.
“… So all we can do is say, ‘Hey, here are the rules, this is the way you need to go about it, don’t violate these. If you do, you put yourself at risk.’”
Caught in limbo
In the NFL, once a player declares for the draft, he forfeits his college eligibility. A basketball player can declare for the NBA draft once while remaining eligible, but he loses eligibility upon signing with an agent.
But with baseball, there is no declaration process. A player is eligible after his senior year of high school, a year of junior college or three years at a four-year school. Furthermore, the MLB Draft falls during the college baseball postseason. Oregon State advanced to the College World Series last year, further complicating Wetzler’s case.
Baseball players can be caught in limbo with their amateur statuses. Mike Rash started hearing from agencies and lawyers during Alec’s junior year of high school. As Alec started throwing in the mid-90s and catching more scouts’ eyes the spring of his senior season, he began to rise up draft boards. With that came even more attention from outside parties.
But Alec's father had done his own research about the draft process. Mike looked up past bonuses, researched team workout programs and consulted families of past draft picks. He talked with Jackson, whose scouting experience gave him an informed perspective on the situation.
Mike said he had no intention of ever bringing a third party in as representation. He said he brought questions on eligibility to MU and the NCAA. When prospective representatives contacted Alec, the player referred them to his father.
“I would always direct it to my dad because I knew he had my best interests in mind,” Alec said.
At first, Mike would humor the lawyers and agencies, saying they could send along their materials.
But Mike figured that agents don't care as much whether a specific team is a good fit for a player; signing a contract and getting a commission is paramount to them.
“At that point, the best interests of the kid kind of goes out the window,” Mike said.
Doing the draft process by the book
Mike was aware of the ambiguity of the process and the relative ease at which one could trip over a bylaw. He never followed up with the agencies, he said, and as the draft got closer, his responses gravitated more toward a straight “no.”
“I got pretty good at it,” he said.
When the Phillies selected Alec with the 95th pick in 2012, the team's offer of $500,000, plus money for future education, wasn’t enough. Swayed by the commitment the Tigers' coaching staff had shown him throughout the process, Alec opted for Missouri.
It’s very likely that Alec will go through the draft process again. He’s back on scouts’ radars and will play in the Cape Cod League this summer for the Falmouth Commodores. The Cape league is the top level of summer baseball nationwide, meaning that plenty of scouts will see him. If he gets picked after his junior year, his amateur eligibility is going to be something he’ll have to keep track of again.
Alec and his father will be even more prepared by then. And even if it's rare these days, Mike said they'll do the draft process by the book.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.