Here’s the thing about the vast majority of bad decisions in sports: They are at least partially explainable.
A league doesn’t want to institute safety measures because then it would be admitting it was wrong. A team gives a massive contract to a borderline star because the fans love him. A player takes steroids because he is under immense pressure to succeed. That’s what makes the Ben Wetzler situation for the Phillies so weird: It is completely unexplainable.
In case you haven’t been following this story, broken by Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt, here’s the gist of it. Phillies draft Ben Wetzler, a junior pitcher out of Oregon State. Phillies lowball Wetzler in contract negotiations. Wetzler decides to go back to school. Phillies get angry and tell the NCAA that Wetzler allowed an agent to directly negotiate for him, which is technically an eligibility violation.
I say “technically” because literally every drafted player allows an agent to negotiate for him. It’s how the system works, as confirmed by pretty much every MLB draft writer who has commented on the situation. Eventually, Wetzler was suspended for one-fifth of the season.
What makes this situation so mind-boggling is that nobody can seem to figure out why the Phillies did this.
They have gained nothing from this. Wetzler wasn’t going to sign with them at their desired price, and he most certainly isn’t going to sign with them now. The NCAA doesn’t give out thank you vouchers for ratting. Letting a draft pick know a team is capable of this is basically extortion (aka not a good method for sustained negotiations when agents can advise multiple players).
Meanwhile, the losses from this could be devastating.
Multiple reporters have heard from agents that there will be “severe repercussions.” Fitt tweeted that an agent told him, "As of today, Phillies are out. Phillies are not getting into any more of our households. We're shutting down all communications."
For one of the oldest teams in baseball, a team that desperately needs to build up younger talent, the idea that potential draft picks could shut them out is an absolute nightmare.
This should all have been foreseeable for the Phillies. Yes, they aren’t known recently for making the best decisions, but there’s a difference between signing Carlos Ruiz to a three-year deal and finding a way to piss off every agent, draftable player and knowledgeable fan.
The only explanation I can think of is that this was an angry, individual member of the front office who made a catastrophically bad decision. But even that theory raises more questions, namely “Why hasn’t this guy been publicly reprimanded/fired/shot out of a cannon yet?” The Phillies have been fairly silent about this, only confirming the reports that they had a hand in the investigation.
Of course, the Phillies aren’t the only bad guy in this.
The omnipresent-whenever-an-athlete-is-getting-screwed NCAA is also making a guest appearance as a secondary antagonist. It really is a wonder that the NCAA could be this naive or inconsistent (or both) in this situation. Wetzler did something virtually every draft pick is known to do, and to punish him is to say “We care about this now.”
That means we could see the NCAA investigate this kind of thing more. Or not. It’s the NCAA; it isn’t known for being consistent or logical.
There would probably be more moral and economic value to just legalize direct agent negotiations with baseball.
It’s asinine that 20-year-olds are supposed to directly negotiate against veteran executives for the most important payday of their lives. According to draft writers, it’s been an unwritten understanding for years that agents can be more involved than legally allowed.
The Phillies have threatened this balance of power between teams and draft prospects. By trying to use NCAA eligibility as an actual threat, the Phillies have shot themselves in the foot to an impressive degree. It is legitimately amazing and bizarre how aggressively bad an idea this was, and if it actually did come from the Phillies' higher-ups, people do need to be fired.
This could all do good in the end, though. The very fact that Ben Wetzler was punished has exposed a broken system in the NCAA’s relationship with MLB draft prospects.
What the NCAA considered illegal by its rule is standard operating procedure in draft negotiations. Thanks to the Phillies pulling off the baseball negotiation equivalent of Pickett’s Charge, the NCAA could finally have to face the situation and take a stand.
Why do you think the Phillies put themselves in this situation? What will this mean for MLB in the future? Email Jack at firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know what you think.