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Top picks prove risky investments
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
There was some logic to what happened in Monday's draft, when teams made picks with equal emphasis on potential bonus payments and playing ability. Of course, that logic depends on believing there is a finite amount of revenue in the baseball business. Or that a proven major leaguer, even a utility guy like F.P. Santangelo, shouldn't have his cut of the loot diminished by money that must instead go the "promise" of an amateur. Or that the notion of $7 million contracts to unestablished amateurs creates an entitlement system at odds with the competitive nature of the sport.
What teams at the top of draft did was simple: they narrowed their list down to certain premium players, then in the days and hours leading up to Monday's selections made take-it-or-leave-it offers based on their parameters -- not the player or the player's representative.
"I'm on the other side, and I understand what they did and why they were able to do it this year," says one prominent agent. "But remember -- this was a year where there was no Pat Burrell or Alex Rodriguez. There was no one guy out there."
The Marlins had the first pick, told prospects they had a $3 million limit, and when they were scorned by a couple of players turned to San Diego high school first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who accepted. Minnesota couldn't get Matt Harrington, a right-handed pitcher from Palmdale, Calif., to buy into their $2.8 million parameter, so they turned to Cal State Fullerton right-hander Adam Johnson. "We had to weigh what he'd get there against what he might get if he went 12th or 14th," says Johnson's agent, Jeff Moorad, who had negotiated major league deals for Burrell and Travis Lee. "It was a fairly basic decision."
The Cubs did the same with Miami high school shortstop Luis Montanez, who had no agent at that point. The Royals, who had been watching Johnson, then called pitcher Mike Stodolka and his agent, Larry Reynolds. There was a chance Stodolka would drop to the middle of the first round, so Reynolds weighed that possibility against the $2.6 million the Royals were offering. He also weighed the opportunity that a giant young left-handed pitcher -- and hitter, as he will DH at least once a week -- would potentially have a faster trip to the big-league cash registers with the Royals and sided with Stodolka's desire to get going and play.
Stanford righty Justin Wayne, considered the pitcher closest to the majors, let the Expos know through agents Arn Tellum and Joel Wolfe that he would prefer taking their offer rather than risking a fall to somewhere between 12th and 15th.
Essentially 10 of the first 11 picks were parameter-type selections, and all may be effectively done by the time you read this. The Blue Jays, with the 18th pick and a limited budget because of their ownership uncertainty, took talented Puerto Rican center fielder Miguel Negron and signed him for $950,000. Last year, that slot received a $1.79 million bonus.
At 22, the Red Sox already had lost out on their first choice -- Warwick, R.I., outfielder Rocco Baldelli, who'd been snagged sixth by Tampa Bay -- and were fascinated by monster slugger Jason Stokes, from Coppell, Texas. When the club called, Stokes let them know he expected top 10 money ($2.6M-$3M) or he was very happy going to the University of Texas, where he'd always wanted to play, and in three years go out as a Pat Burrell.
"We were convinced that he was sincere and that he'd hold to that," says Boston general manager Dan Duquette. "So we moved on." Boston wasn't going to pay that money for the 22nd pick, and moved on to choosing between Bakersfield JC LHP Phil Dumatrait and Boston high school right-hander Manny Delcarmen (whom they got in the second round). They took the extra cash to sign a highly-touted Korean left-handed pitcher named Tae-In Che. "No matter what some agents want to believe," says Duquette, "there are financial limits."
At 25, the Rangers knew what it would take to sign San Diego high school catcher Scott Heard. At 27 the Astros knew the price on El Camino (Calif.) JC pitcher Robert Stiehl, a converted catcher who threw 16 innings all season for coach Tony Muser Jr. The Yankees, drafting 28th, called around to several clubs with a figure, and settled on University of Michigan catcher David Parrish, son of Tiger great Lance Parrish.
Then came the second round. "If clubs match the prices set by some of those players and agents, then the logic goes out the window," says one agent. For instance, the Marlins took Stokes. Then came the whole Scott Boras scene.
Boras, who has sincere, strong, evangelical belief in infinite signing revenues and the value of amateur prospects, had seen his client list drop. The first Boras player selected was Auburn right-hander Chris Bootcheck, who was Anaheim's second first-round selection, at 20. "They can risk this," says an agent. "Otherwise, they'll say, 'Go back to school and we'll take the sandwich compensation next June."
The second Boras player selected was Miami high school SS/OF David Espinosa, by the Reds. That will be a fascinating study in Jim Bowden/Boras creativity; in fact, Cincinnati took another Boras client, catcher Dane Sardinha of Pepperdine in the second round.
Boras' clients followed Stokes in Round 2. University of San Francisco 1B Taggert Bozied, SS-2B Bobby Hill (now playing in the Atlantic League), Sardinha, Stanford RHP Jason Young and Cal 3B-1B Xavier Nady all went in the next eight picks of the second round. But unlike the situations where Rick Ankiel and Chad Hutchinson fell to the Cardinals, who were willing to meet Boras' price, these players fell to the Twins, Cubs, Rockies and Padres.
The price on Hill, who walked away from the White Sox last fall and is playing in the independent league, was $1.5 million. Can he get that in the second round from the Cubs? Only if the Cubs are obsessed with the White Sox, or are afraid of challenging Hill to play his career in Newark. The Rockies would have taken Young in the first round had Harrington not been there; now can they find a compromise between the Young's draft slot and his $2.5 million price, knowing that while Young may well be this draft's Mike Mussina, he also has health issues that he may not be willing to risk with another year at Stanford.
And when will we hear the clichéd cry of "Collusion?"
"If they want to charge collusion, we have all the proof that they require to the contrary," says Sandy Alderson, who gathered scouting directors in Atlanta on May 15 to discuss negotiations. "Most of that day was spent on negotiating. Then there was an hour where we talked about philosophy."
Alderson posed this: "If three of you don't sign your first-round pick each year, that means each team will lose a first-round pick every ten years." He suggested the take-it-or-leave-it parameters. He set forth a guideline where clubs could know what other clubs are doing, as players and agents always know what they are doing.
Tuesday, the father of one drafted player said all he wanted was last year's number for that position in that round -- plus the expected 20 percent inflation. "Why is that expected?" asks Alderson. Agents feel they have to get slot numbers, or they lose potential clients to Boras and other aggressive agents the next year. "What we are doing is financing the agents' war," says one GM, "without calling any bluff. If Colorado offers $2.8 million to Harrington, what's he going to do, turn it down and go to college?"
No sure thing
Scouts and agents can say all they want that certain players are can't-miss prospects, but can't-misses do miss. Remember in 1990 when the Braves were panned for going for the "makeup" player over the greatest pitching prospect since Sidd Finch? They got Chipper Jones; the A's got Todd Van Poppel. "I could say, 'I've made those mistakes,' " says Alderson. Indeed, that was the draft in which Oakland had two first-round picks, two sandwiches and three seconds. "We got nothing out of that draft," Alderson laughs. The only players out of Oakland's entire draft still in the big leagues are Van Poppel, now with his eighth organization, and pitcher Tanyon Sturtze, who was picked in the 23rd round.
Montreal was the other club with the franchise draft that year, with 10 of the first 55 picks and Gary Hughes to pick them. The only player the Expos have remaining from that draft is Rondell White, while Gabe White, Shane Andrews and Stan Spencer drift about. Brien Taylor broke every signing bonus record in 1991 when he was drafted first overall, and is now out of baseball. But then only two of the first 10 picks from that season are still in the majors -- Dmitri Young and David McCarty. "McCarty is the classic case," says one GM. "He was supposed to be a franchise hitter, but it took nine years for him to make it as a role bat."
Only one of the first six players selected in 1989 is in the major leagues: Tyler Houston (guess his team and win $100), even though the high school and college players out of that draft are at prime ages of 29 and 32. The highest bonuses paid players in 1992 were to Jeffrey Hammonds and Calvin Murray, good but not franchise-altering players. Pitchers Kenny Henderson and John Burke were drafted 5th and 6th in 1991, but went to school rather than sign to prove their points, and are long gone out of baseball. Or, how about the four players in '96 who became free agents? Travis Lee, good, but $10 million? Do the Diamondbacks think the $7 million they paid John Patterson makes so much sense now that he's had Tommy John surgery? While the Devil Rays still hold hope for the $14+ million they gave high school pitchers Matt White and Bobby Seay, they invested that amount and have to wait 5-6 years for a return.
History shows that prospects are not entitled to big money because they are nothing but prospects. How clubs get back to restoring the balance between cost and value is a serious issue, one that began this week and will continue in a couple of years when they try to get an international draft built into the next labor agreement.
As for collusion? "Does anyone really think we could get 30 clubs to agree on anything?" asks Alderson. Not when one club told its front office to be wary of Alderson when baseball held executive development meetings in January because "he is a socialist." Hey, everyone knows the Braves will give one seven-figure deal to a lower-round pick, and that someone somewhere will use leverage he never dreamed of having.
But, for now, there's logic; or holding to the belief that a player is a once-in-a-lifetime player just because he says so.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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