The Case of Ben Wetzler vs. the Phillies and the NCAA
The NCAA is often criticized for its Draconian measures against student athletes who try and prepare for a professional career, as well as its nonstandard punishments for apparent rules violations, see University of Oklahoma’s “Pastagate” as an example of such ludicrousness. But the case of Oregon State pitcher Ben Wetzler, who was turned in by the Philadelphia Phillies for hiring a financial advisor and ultimately electing to return for his senior season at Oregon State University, this has to be one of the most absurd, if not the most absurd case of the NCAA going on its “As you go” rules policy.
For those who are uninformed, Wetzler was a 5th round draft choice of the Phillies. Had he signed with them, he would have earned a $400,000 signing bonus. Obviously, Wetzler felt that he wasn’t ready, and wanted to be sure he was making the right choice, so he hired a financial advisor. When it became apparent that it would be better if he stayed in school, he did. In a plot that draws loose similarities to the 2006 Academy Award winning foreign film Das Leben Der Anderen, the Phillies, likely upset at having been jilted by the young starter, reported that Wetzler had hired an agent for the negotiations. The NCAA came down on this, and suspended Wetzler “indefinitely”. Incidentally, Wetzler wasn’t the only player that the Phillies tried to blackball, as Washington State outfielder and first baseman Jason Monda was also reported, yet was cleared by the Cougars and the NCAA to play this year.
What’s even more remarkable is that this is the first time that this has happened. Never before has a player been reported by a major league team. Granted, a player has been suspended and his eligibility has been revoked before, see Aaron Crow, Luke Hochevar, and James Paxton, but the teams that drafted them, the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Toronto Blue Jays never did report them.
This is undoubtedly low on Philadelphia’s part. A player should not be stabbed behind the back like that just because they chose to return to school, money or otherwise. It unfairly disqualifies a player, and ruins a team’s reputation. Agents who represent collegiate talent are now likely going to advise their clients to avoid signing with Philadelphia because of this. Similarly, the NCAA should be ashamed. There have been far worse examples of the same thing happening. Mark Appel for instance.
Appel, who had been chosen by the Pirates with the 8th overall pick out of Stanford, elected to return to school under the advice of Scott Boras, who wanted first overall pick money for his client. Incidentally, Appel also wanted to return because he wasn’t a first overall pick. A year later, Appel, who wasn’t suspended by the NCAA because the Pirates didn’t rat him out despite his being a more blatant transgression of the rules, was drafted first overall by the Astros. It amazes me that something this blatant wasn’t addressed, yet a fifth round pick deciding to return to school was. It’s hypocritical.
It’s likely that the Phillies will have a very severely damaged reputation now that Wetzler has decided to hire an attorney. This attorney is the same attorney that dealt with Houston based college football booster Willie Lyles. in the case of Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk. The fallout likely could mean that the Phillies would be banned from drafting Oregon State, or by extension, Pac-12 baseball players. This would be a big loss, especially considering one of Philadelphia’s alleged biggest targets could be Oregon State star Michael Conforto.
It wouldn’t be the first time that a team was banned from recruiting certain players. The Baltimore Orioles cannot attend Korea Baseball Association* sponsored baseball camps in South Korea after signing then-high-school pitcher Kim-Seong Min before he graduated.
*Recently signed Orioles pitcher Suk-Min Yoon is a product of the Korea Baseball Organization, which governs the professional leagues in South Korea. The Orioles are allowed to attend KBO games and sign KBO players.
Could Wetzler have a legitimate case against the NCAA and the Phillies by extension? It’s possible. This is the first time that such an incident has happened, and usually the ruling in the first case will set a precent. If the Appel case can be cited, it is likely that Wetzler could have his suspension overturned, thus allowing him the opportunity to pitch his senior season. For now, we will wait and see what happens.