MLBPA agent Josh Kusnick at work

Negotiating Royal Blue Waters

It’s a 24/7 grind where he’s always on call.  Being a certified agent with the MLBPA “has nothing to do with Jerry Maguire.”

That’s the realism presented by Joshua Kusnick, the agent to two of the newest Royals, Lorenzo Cain and Jeremy Jeffress.

His involvement with the Royals is the conjunction of a few chance meetings, a break here and there, and just like in real estate, location location location.

“It’s difficult to get in,” he says.  “I did some bird dog scouting for a team – nothing serious, just getting into the game.  Then the first guy I signed made it to the big leagues, so I got certified early.”

And from there, Kusnick has signed a collection of young talent, many of whom are starting to make their case to be future stars.  Michael Brantley, Zach Kroenke and Trayvon Robinson are a few of the other players he represents, but the Zack Greinke trade has brought Cain and Jeffress into the spotlight for the moment.

That’s where they belong, according to Kusnick.  Cain, he says, “is gonna be the poster boy for the Royals.”  He cites the center fielder’s talent and character as a big reason for that prediction.

“[Eric] Hosmer will hit a billion home runs, [Mike] Moustakas will hit a billion home runs, Jeffress will save 50 games one day, but Lorenzo’s that guy that’ll wear the C for them.  He’s that kind of player that could be the face of the franchise and there aren’t that many players that have a chance, not just talent wise, but to carry an entire brand on his back the way Derek Jeter did.”

Cain’s story is the kind of tale you expect from a movie.  Cut from his basketball team in the tenth grade, Cain needed to make arrangements to get a ride home from school.  Instead, the school’s baseball coach invited him to try out for the baseball team.  Cain’s best friend at the time, Jeremy Haynes, a pitcher in the Angels system, was the star of the team and convinced Cain to go for it.  At the first practice, he didn’t even have a glove with him.

“And now he’s in the big leagues.”

And now he’s also a Royal.

Brantley, Cain and Kusnick were at a Dolphins game together that Sunday when the news broke.  Jeffress was “100% fired up” about the move, but Cain took some convincing.  He was mostly shocked by being traded away from the only organization he’d known since becoming a pro.  Brantley, you’ll recall, had been traded with Matt LaPorta to the Indians in return for C.C. Sabathia in 2008, so his experience in that deal gave him an opportunity to put it into perspective.  Their discussion helped get Cain into a mindset where he’s equally excited to join Kansas City.

“It’s funny how it all ended up working out because I represent Darren Ford, Michael Brantley, Lorenzo Cain and Jeremy Jeffress and all four of those guys were with the Brewers and now they’re all gone.  Two Royals, an Indian and a Giant.”

Part of the reason Jeffress and Cain are excited to join Kansas City is the organization’s potential.

“The easy parallel I got to make to both of them was ‘look at the Rays.’  They were drafting first overall for a few years then they all made the big leagues at once and make the World Series.  The Royals certainly have that kind of depth in their system.  Now they’ve filled their holes.”

Giving up a former Cy Young winner isn’t easy.

“Mike [Brantley] told me that Greinke was the best pitcher he’s ever seen in his life,” Kusnick says.  “I saw [Brantley] against Justin Verlander, he went 4-5.  I saw him against Josh Beckett, he had three hits.  Mike’s a pretty good contact hitter and it was like 73 mph changeup, 92 mph fastball, 67 mph curve then he struck him out with a 98 mph fastball.”

Considering what the Royals gave up, Cain and Jeffress figure to be in the Royals plans in both the short and long term.

“Certainly if you trade Greinke, they’re kind of all in on [Cain] from now until whenever.”

There are small concerns with Cain as an everyday center fielder due to his lack of experience (the tryout in tenth grade was the first organized baseball he’d ever played) and a current lack of power.  The talent is apparent, though.  He’s expected to be solid on defense and has good speed on the basepaths.  Nearly every scouting report describes him as “toolsy”.  That he’s at this level at 24 years old (25 shortly after the start of the season)with limited time in baseball growing up shows he has natural talent and if the Royals can provide him the opportunity, he could be a solid contributor.  Kusnick says he’s ready.

“He was up in the big leagues since June last year,” he says.  “Hit .307 from June until September, so it’s not like you have a guy with no track record.  I mean it’s limited, but it’s enough, I think.”

The easy comparison is Mike Cameron – a rangy outfielder who had lower power before his peak years.  They have similar builds (both are 6’2″ and around 200 pounds) and, in the pre-steroid era, power was the last tool to develop fully.  Kusnick thinks he could be a 20 homer guy at some point in his career as Cain develops confidence as a hitter.

Cain provides highlight reel material with his defense.  One such play had him in center for Milwaukee, ranging to his right on a drive and making a diving catch, but crashing into the wall.  It’s the kind of effort he puts into every play.

“I literally flipped the game on at that exact moment thinking ‘Oh I think Lorenzo’s playing’, then I’m going ‘Oh god I think he’s dead.’ ”

Cain was on the ground for a few moments, but was in the lineup the next day without a problem.  Darren Ford and Michael Brantley, fellow outfielders with Cain in West Virginia, the Brewers A level affiliate in 2006, called him with some advice.  ” ‘Don’t be afraid to check out where the outfield fences are at before the game.’ ”

After 10 innings with the Brewers in 2010, Jeffress seems ready to go.  It’s well known that Jeffress has had his issues coming up through the minors.  Before being added to Milwaukee’s 40 man roster, he’d been suspended twice for failing marijuana tests.  The second failed test earned him a 100 game suspension – a third failed test would ban him from the game for life.

That’s where an agent’s toughest work starts.

“All these other agents were in his ear.  ‘Josh can’t do this, can’t do that’ and then boom, suspension.  Everyone stops calling him.  I drove to go see him that day and played basketball with him.  I talked him through the whole suspension, handled all the media stuff, set up his rehab stuff with the team.  The Brewers did a great job setting up his rehab.”

After the trade, Jeffress will continue with the program.

“The Royals are following up greatly.  They’re doing an awesome job transitioning Jeremy’s stuff over.”

The night of the trade was a bit of a circus, with Jeffress being reported as part of the deal, then not included, then back in but as a player to be named later.  The Royals were originally going to do a deep review of medical records which held the final announcements up, but they later  agreed to keep him in without naming him as a later part of the deal.

Kusnick says the review was unrelated to his marijuana testing.

“A guy like him without these past transgressions never would have been available for any kind of trade,” he says.  As one of the top prospects in the Brewers system and with electric stuff – a fastball that can hit triple figures and a wicked curveball – it’s feasible that those issues made the former first round pick more attainable.  Placement on the 40 man roster prevents him from facing another test because the MLBPA doesn’t conduct marijuana testing, but Jeffress’s past isn’t a character concern according to Kusnick.

“He could still screw his life up because it’s illegal, but it shouldn’t be a concern,” he says.  “It’s like the old Mitch Hedburg joke – ‘Addiction’s the only disease you can get yelled at for having.’  Like, ‘dammit, you have lupus’ ‘dammit you’re an addict.’  Ya know, which one of these doesn’t sound right?

“With Jeremy, it’s a real addiction problem and people take it for granted because of how stupid it looks.  It’s marijuana but he has a serious problem with it.  I’ve been around Jeremy since he was in high school and it’s not this kid who doesn’t care about his career and is blowing any chance he can get.  The kid has a problem with it and a physical addiction.  He was diagnosed and in treatment.”

There’s a chance Jeffress wouldn’t have been included in the deal if not for another Royals prospect and an old connection of Kusnick’s.  Dayton Moore stated that he’d called Eric Hosmer about Jeffress to get an idea about his character and Hosmer vouched for him.  Kusnick went to high school with Hosmer’s older brother and has known Hosmer since the first baseman was twelve years old.

“Eric’s a pretty high-character guy and I don’t think without Hosmer’s endorsement, they would have traded for him.”

Jeffress should be an option in the back of the bullpen in 2011.  He has the stuff to be a closer in the event that the Royals end up trading Joakim Soria, but he’s not likely to be put into the rotation.  The Brewers had been committed to keeping him as a starter, but his abilities translate better to a bullpen role, a spot that could also help him maintain his focus as he deals with his addiction problems.

“It’s a better role for him.  He comes to the field every day expecting to pitch.”  With four or five days between starts, “that was one of the things that got him in trouble initially.  If he comes to the field every day ready to pitch, there’s no down time for him and it really helps.”

Overall, Kusnick is pleased his clients get a chance to play in Kansas City, and he’s not averse to locking them up long-term with the club, especially with the way the minor league system has developed.  As Royals fans are aware, it’s been a rough two decades of losing seasons, lost superstars and busted prospects.

“If everyone does what they’re supposed to do, they’re going to be a pretty good team,” he says about the Royals top prospects.  Kusnick sees Cain and Jeffress as part of that bright future.

“Their history has been get Mike Sweeney, launch his career and let him go.  Get Carlos Beltran, have to let him go.  Johnny Damon, same thing.  It’s the way it went.

“If you dream a little and project what kind of team they’ll have, it’ll be a matter of piecing it all together and getting those guys signed.  Everyone’s got their own philosophy of how they want to deal with that regarding their representation.  I’ve had Lorenzo and Jeremy for a long time and they trust me and I certainly trust them so hopefully, when the time comes, next year, the year after, arbitration one, whatever, I’d like to give them some piece of mind hopefully in Kansas City.

“It’d be nice to see them in a situation where not only will they be compensated for their ability but they have the opportunity to be one of those teams that has a chance to win.”

That relationship is key between agent and player.  Kusnick’s goal is to put all of his focus into his clients.  He’s had opportunities to merge with other agencies, but has stayed with Double Diamond Sports Management, the company he created with his dad when he was 20.  Sometimes his age (Kusnick is 28) and accessibility put him outside the establishment of agents (Kusnick has also done stand-up comedy in the past).  He describes himself as “an odd duck.”

Kusnick says he isn’t much of a sports fan.  He’s always had an eye for the good players, but doesn’t get into the games.  It’s business.  He’s also written for Baseball Prospectus in the past, providing an agent’s insight to the game.  He maintains a blog that recounts events in his personal and professional life.  His openness gets a good reception, but “there were a lot of people pissed off at me,” he says.

And while he says it’s all business, Kusnick has known many of his clients for years.  Even as a business, “none of this works without having the players.”  That’s obvious, but it’s also what drives him to continue in such a grueling career.

“For me at least, the personal relationship is so important because without that it’s just the money, and that’s when you get fired.  Lorenzo Cain is like a brother to me, Jeffress is too.  Some agents don’t like that.  There are two ways to go about it.  You have that completely sterile business relationship, but I think if I get that way, I’d go do something else.”

The next step for Kusnick, Cain and Jeffress is spring training as well as their unveiling to the Royals community.  Casual fans may not know who they are yet, or just know the basic information or their stats in limited time with the Brewers in 2010.  Both are training now, though Kusnick isn’t sure when they’ll arrive in Surprise for spring training.  In the meantime, both Cain and Jeffress will be at Royals FanFest and get their introduction to the Royals fanbase (as well as other players and members of the organization).

“I hear it gets packed there,” Kusnick mentions.  “Like, thousands of people show up [for autographs] so I warned them both.  Lo’s signature is pretty short – he writes his initials – but Jeremy writes his whole name out.  Oh my god, his autograph is picturesque.

“Fans will love it, but he’s not going to like writing it for about three hours.”

If Cain and Jeffress perform like Kusnick hopes they will, they can expect to spend a lot of time scribbling initials and perfecting signatures.

You can stay current on all the Kings of Kauffman content and news by following us onTwitter,Facebook, or by way of our RSS feed.  I want to thank Josh for taking an hour out of his busy schedule to talk to me about Lorenzo and Jeremy.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Dayton Moore Eric Hosmer Jeremy Jeffress Joshua Kusnick Kansas City Royals KC Lorenzo Cain Michael Brantley MLB Royals

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