How David Robertson negotiated his own contract with Phillies during a never-ending free-agent winter
In the midst of a historically lethargic free-agent market, the veteran reliever represented himself and signed a two-year, $23 million contract with the Phillies.
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- If, as the adage goes, a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, then what do you call a baseball player who acts as his own agent?
Try curious. Confident, too.
As players at spring-training sites across Florida and Arizona rail against a free-agent market so stagnant that 26-year-old stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned, David Robertson has a unique perspective. The 33-year-old reliever parted ways with his agent, Scott Leventhal, and spent the winter negotiating a contract, winding up with a two-year, $23 million agreement with the Phillies.
“It’s a tricky time for baseball, I think,” Robertson said before a recent workout at the Carpenter Complex. “I’m not sure what’s going on with everything. I do know that fans want to see the best players on the field, so hopefully those guys end up with organizations that want them.”
Robertson went through free agency once before, landing with the Chicago White Sox on a four-year, $46 million deal that began in 2015. Over the years, he has paid attention to reliever signings and followed trends, and last year, in the midst of a slow-moving market, he noted that nine of the 10 biggest free-agent deals for relievers were signed within a two-week span in December.
So, as Robertson ventured into free agency as his own advocate, he figured he would sign a contract by New Year’s Day, at the latest.
“Just going off the past season, the reliever market has been speeding up [relative to other positions],” he said. “I knew there was a lot of good relievers on the market, and I knew that a lot of teams would probably be reaching out. I thought I would have to make a decision probably earlier than later.”
But the market moved even more slowly this winter than last. And although Jeurys Familia (three years, $30 million to the New York Mets), Joe Kelly (three years, $25 million to the Los Angeles Dodgers) and Joakim Soria (two years, $15 million to the Oakland Athletics) came off the board before the holidays, Robertson and fellow relievers Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino, Kelvin Herrera, and Craig Kimbrel remained unsigned.
“That was probably one of the times during the process when I kind of thought, 'Am I doing the right thing?’ ” Robertson said. “But I tried to stay calm and level-headed and see the bigger picture and know that I have a good set of skills, that the right teams I had spoken to were interested, and it was just a matter of figuring it out and getting an actual deal done.”
Robertson believed his market came into better focus once lefty Andrew Miller, also 33 and with a similar track record, signed a two-year, $25 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Phillies, who also had interest in Miller, turned to Robertson, valuing his ability to pitch without a defined bullpen role and his career-long dominance of left-handed batters (.188 average, .546 on-base plus slugging percentage).
The Phillies struck a deal with Robertson on Jan. 3 after a negotiation that general manager Matt Klentak labeled as “unique.”
“Candidly, when you’re talking directly to a player about contracts, sometimes I found myself being a little more guarded with what I would say than I might be with an agent," Klentak said. "But he was very well-prepared, knew the market extremely well, knew what was important to him and was able to articulate it well. That helped us get to a deal.”
Shortly thereafter, Herrera signed for two years with the White Sox and Britton and Ottavino took three-year offers from the Yankees. But Kimbrel -- like Harper, Machado, lefty Dallas Keuchel and dozens of others -- remains unsigned and wondering if his agent will find a deal that meets his approval.
“I can’t imagine that,” Robertson said. “They’re the best in the world, and you want to see them on the field. I hope they get what they’re looking for and end up on teams that want to compete.”