*In order to be quoted in this story, agents spoke under the condition of anonymity in order to protect their professional relationships with the ACES firm. Every agent who spoke is a certified MLBPA agent who represents both minor and major league players.*
Should ACES be punished in the Biogenesis fallout?
At first glance, the players implicated in baseball's Biogenesis scandal may seem like a random assortment from many different teams, countries and skill levels who are randomly linked by a scandal that has rocked the sports world.
From key contributors on contending teams (Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz) to out-of-work journeymen (Jordan Norberto and Fautino De Los Santos), the list of the 19 players linked to the clinic includes players from many different levels of baseball's hierarchy.
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Although the athletes represent 13 different teams and five different countries of origin, there is a common thread that ties together a significant number of the players involved in the unprecedented scandal.
The ACES agency, led by brothers Sam and Seth Levinson, currently represents nine of the 19 players linked to Biogenesis (Peralta, De Los Santos, Melky Cabrera, Antonio Bastardo, Jordany Valdespin, Cesar Puello, Fernando Martinez, Sergio Escalona and Gio Gonzalez), and has previously represented four others who have since fired the company and moved on to new agencies (Francisco Cervelli, Jordan Norberto, Everth Cabrera and Cruz).
Cruz made news on Tuesday morning by firing ACES before the announcement of his 50-game suspension and teaming up with Wasserman Media Group's Adam Katz.
If you're counting at home, that's thirteen ACES clients out of the nineteen players linked to Biogenesis, equaling 68.4% of the accused group.
Now consider that 68.4% is several orders of magnitude greater than the percentage of total MLB players they represent. The agency database at mlbtraderumors.com has just 107 ACES clients of 1890 players in the database, or 5.7%.
After Melky Cabrera's suspension last season, it was discovered that Juan Carlos Nunez, a consultant who worked with ACES, created a fake website that was intended to help Cabrera appeal his 50-game ban. The agency fired Nunez and became the subject of a league investigation before issuing this public statement, via USA Today.
"Anyone who knows us, knows that it is absolutely ridiculous to think that we would ever condone the use of performance enhancing drugs. Our work over the last 25 years demonstrates that ACES is built on a foundation of honesty, integrity, and doing things the right way. Neither Sam nor I, or anyone else at ACES, have ever met or even heard of Anthony Bosch until the recent news stories, nor does anyone have any knowledge of or connection to Biogenesis. Moreover, Juan Nunez ceased doing work on behalf of the agency as soon as his involvement in the Melky Cabrera matter came to light. The MLBPA's investigation into that matter found that we had no involvement in or knowledge of any wrongdoing. Similarly, in this case, we are not involved and do not have any knowledge as to what took place or who was allegedly involved."
While some believe that the company made Nunez seem like an independent consultant in their response to the accusations, a competing agent claimed otherwise.
"They tried to paint Nunez as an independent contractor, but that's just not the case," said the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He was, on the Latin side, their pointman for the recruitment of those players. He was not only an employee, he was an important part of their Latin operations."
"When that all came out and ACES threw [Nunez] under the bus, I thought that was the wrong thing to do and I thought they were able to skate free easily by calling him an independent contractor."
As Craig Calcaterra of NBCSports.com reported on Tuesday, Major League Baseball has "absolutely no evidence" that Nunez acted under the advisement of the Levinson brothers when connecting clients to the Biogenesis clinic. While Calcaterra's report notes that a punishment for the agency is unlikely, competing agents called for penalties similar to the ones handed to the players on Tuesday.
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Although it is certain that for business reasons competing agents would be happy to see a major agency like ACES punished, many expressed harsher opinions due to their claims that the company has been aggressive in recruiting clients who already have representation elsewhere.
"You can't say that they didn't know about it," the agent who spoke about Nunez said. "I think they [ACES] should be kicked out, personally, but I don't think it's going to happen."
The agent also noted that the Major League Baseball Players Association would be the group to levy sanctions on any agency, but doubts that any punishment would become public.
"I don't think they'll let us know, though. Now that it seems to be getting some legs that the press knows that [most of the players linked to Biogenesis] are ACES guys, maybe [the MLBPA] will be forced to do something publicly because there will be too much attention on them."
"I do feel there should be some action taking based on the number of players connected to their group," another competing agent said. "It places a bad name on agents who try to do things in an ethical and correct manner. Younger clients of theirs might want to consider reviewing how they want their careers handled by a group who appears to be linked to this. There are great agents out there who can do tremendous things for players and still do it in the manner of respect."
Following Cruz's hiring of Wasserman Media Group today, other agents believe that more clients will leave ACES as a result of the negative attention the firm is receiving from the case. One prominent agent even claimed that ACES clients have recently contacted him with interest in switching representation.
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"They think they are bulletproof," said the agent, speaking about ACES. "It's like Watergate, follow the money. How does a check drawn from an account with the Levinsons' name on it end up in the hands of a known steroid distributor?"
"I've had three ACES clients interview me in the past week, shopping for new agents. I'm told most of their clients are shopping right now. There are a lot of good --and even not so good-- agents that won't shed a tear if they go down. It's about time they were held accountable for their actions."
In addition to those connected to Biogenesis, ACES also represents many prominent players including David Wright, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon and Brandon Phillips. It is unclear if any of these players will leave the firm due to the Biogenesis link, but would likely have to if any type of ban was invoked by the Players Association.
Although the call for punishment is strong, the MLBPA is handcuffed in terms of what actions they can take. If they banned ACES for a year or two, the firm would likely lose all of their clientele and effectively be banned for life. Because of this, Michael Weiner's staff must determine if the alleged link between the firm and Biogenesis is enough to warrant a lifetime ban from the certification process.
"I'd suggest reading section 5(B)(21) of the Agent Regulations that clearly states that no agent may provide or assist any player in obtaining any substance prohibited under the Drug Prevention program," a third competing agent said.
"I don't see it as pure coincidence that most of the clients or remain clients of ACES. Considering they're from different Latin countries, I find it difficult to believe that they all just came together randomly at Biogenesis. Furthermore, considering players left ACES as soon as the story broke a long time ago, and more players are leaving like Cruz did today, suggests that they want to preserve their own images by landing with a new company."
"The real issue is that ACES is so big and, I believe, well-respected within the union, that they probably won't receive any negative consequences other than losing clients naturally," the agent continued. "I'm sure this result will be viewed as the natural order of things and even if ACES suggested Biogenesis, players know they are all responsible for what they put in their bodies."
While the evidence may not be enough to cause significant sanctions on the Levinson brothers in wake of the Biogenesis scandal, their competitors remain angry due to the unquestionable link between the firm and the clinic.
"If there is hard evidence that any agency is aiding their players in the purchase of steroids, they should absolutely be punished," opined a fourth agent.
One competitor summed up the general feeling among other agents in the league, expressing doubt in response to the firm's claim that they had no idea of Nunez' connection to the Biogenesis clinic.
"They run too successful of an agency to have something like that just be happening under their watch."