The Art of Free-Agent Recruiting by Fellow MLB Players

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The Art of Free-Agent Recruiting by Fellow MLB Players
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
While the $85 million certainly helped put new Yankee Brian McCann in pinstripes, so did Mark Teixeira.

In free agency, money talks. But players do, too.

While most in and around Major League Baseball would agree that dollar signs are the driving force in decision-making, there are other factors that help determine where players on the open market ultimately wind up. Chief among those? A franchise's history, a team's recent and future success (or lack thereof), and of course, location, location, location.

There's also an often overlooked aspect, too, one that isn't talked or written about all that much. Not because it's bad or wrong or illicit, but because it's personal.

The power of persuasion.

Baseball players are people, after all, and people gossip and gab and, well, talk. And when the curtain opens up on the open market every offseason, that's when a little player-to-player communication can go a long way.

While it's not quite as prevalent and involved at the highest level of baseball and other professional sports as it is in, say, college sports like football and basketball, recruiting is definitely a factor in trying to get an available player to sign on the dotted line.

Everyone wants to feel, well, wanted.

Before thinking otherwise, though, recruiting in MLB isn't necessarily a roll-out-the-red-carpet, come-visit-for-a-night-out-on-the-town-type of arrangement that's meant to entice and excite a player to join a new club. Rather, it can be as simple as a phone call, text or yes, even a tweet from one player to another, all with the hope that a positive report on the team, the town or the topography just might be enough to help seal the deal.

Baseball is a fraternity, one in which everyone either knows or has heard of everyone. It only makes sense, then, that the reputation of and endorsement from a player and a team—a personal connection—can result in a free agent becoming a teammate.

Just ask Nick Swisher. After spending four years with the New York Yankees, including a championship season in 2009, the outfielder left as a free agent to join the Cleveland Indians.

Certainly, it didn't hurt that the team shelled out $56 million over four years, but the Ohio-born and Ohio State-educated Swisher was also impressed by the fact that his home-state club pulled out all the tricks in convincing him to return to his roots, per Zack Meisel of MLB.com:

The Indians had provided Nick Swisher and his wife, actress JoAnna Garcia, a tour of Progressive Field. They had displayed a video on the scoreboard in which a cast of Ohio State coaches offered testimonials as to why the free-agent slugger should return to his home state.

However, one thing -- rather, one person -- was missing.

As Swisher sat down for lunch on Dec. 18 in the ritzy Terrace Club that hovers over the left-field foul line, Garcia, completely unaware of what the team had in store, muttered to her Buckeye-born-and-bred husband: "You know who we haven't seen in a while? Coach [Jim] Tressel. I wonder where he is."

As scripted and preposterous as it sounds, Swisher contends that he and his wife turned around and -- voila -- there stood Tressel, the former Ohio State football coach who directed Swisher's alma mater to a BCS National Championship exactly 10 years to the date that the Indians introduced their new right fielder.

"You talk about perfect timing," Tressel told MLB.com. "That was kind of neat the way it worked out."

Coaches can get in on the act, too. Manager Terry Francona, who had been hired only weeks prior, was a big part of the process. Per Meisel, Swisher acknowledged as much by saying, "This guy right here is a great recruiter. He really is."

Speaking of Swisher's former team, the Yankees just spent big ($85 million over five years) to land catcher Brian McCann last month. And while all that money certainly mattered, McCann acknowledged—at the very outset of the question-and-answer portion of his welcome-to-New York press conference—that he was seeking some advice and insight on the team and the city.

For that, he called Mark Teixeira, a onetime Braves teammate, as Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York and Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News reported.

The Yankees first baseman wasn't the only one to speak highly of the club to McCann. Former Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske, who played on seven different teams and spent only a few months as a Yankee prior to three years as McCann's teammate in Atlanta, also reached out to the seven-time All-Star.

Hinske, who was briefly in the Yankees' pro scouting department after retiring earlier in 2013 and has since taken a coaching job with the Chicago Cubs, was a part of the process, according to Andy McCullough of The Star-Ledger:

"[Hinske] was involved," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "He helped me with Brian McCann...Because he played with Brian. So I appreciate Eric Hinske giving Brian McCann a lot of good advice about his experience here with the Yankees.

So sometimes, a player doesn't even have to be active to be persuasive.

That might explain why just last month, longtime Royal Mike Sweeney, who spent 13 years in Kansas City and is still affiliated with the club, got on the horn and played a part in helping convince left-hander Jason Vargas to agree to his four-year deal, according to Dick Kaegel of MLB.com:

"I played with Mike Sweeney, who, as you know, is a big part of this community, and he told me everything that it had to offer," Vargas said when his four-year deal was announced on Thursday. "I believe in a lot of the things he says and I take them very seriously, so I had all the confidence in the world that this would be a good fit for me."

The two knew each other from their time together in Seattle, where Sweeney spent parts of two seasons near the tail end of his career.

This whole reach-out-and-touch-someone approach isn't always successful, though, but not for lack of trying.

Back in November, according to Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe and David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Boston Red Sox catcher David Ross—a free agent himself just a year ago—tried to recruit a pair of former teammates in McCann and right-hander Tim Hudson, who wound up signing with the San Francisco Giants.

While Ross' advances didn't work out, he's far from the only one. The same thing happened a few years ago to Torii Hunter when the veteran outfielder, now a Detroit Tiger, was with the Los Angeles Angels.

In trying to convince fellow outfielder Carl Crawford, a free agent after the 2010 season, to join him in Los Angeles, Hunter started working the angles months in advance, according to Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times:

Hunter began recruiting Crawford during the All-Star game, making sure the two had lockers next to each other, and that process will continue after the World Series.

"I'm a friend of his, but I just have to advise him about free agency and the right way to go," Hunter said. "For me, Anaheim is the right way to go. It's sunny, we get 40,000 fans a game, we have soft turf."

Hunter takes his role as recruiting coordinator seriously, but his track record isn't good. He wooed Mark Teixeira two winters ago, and Teixeira spurned a huge Angels offer to sign a $180-million deal with the New York Yankees.

"Those Yankees pay you to change your mind," Hunter said. "What can you do?"

Hunter might not have been able to compete with the Yankees' money, and after failing to get Crawford or Teixeira to sign with the Angels, he even told DiGiovanna's L.A. Times colleague Bill Shaikin that when it comes to recruiting players, "I'm retired."

Leon Halip/Getty Images
Maybe Joe Nathan just missed Torii Hunter's always smiling face.

It turns out, though, the ever-gregarious and outgoing Hunter still has some smooth-talking in him as a Tiger.

While his shilling skills proved to be ineffective in the past, Hunter played at least a small part in helping Detroit ink closer Joe Nathan this offseason by exchanging text messages with his former Minnesota Twins teammate, per Josh Slagter of MLive.com.

It seems, then, that having an already established relationship and connection with a free agent is often a common denominator when it comes to a player or team trying to do some effective recruiting. That's when the powers of persuasion are strongest.

And as Hunter proved, when pure persuasion doesn't pay off, there's still another trait that can—persistence.

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