Draft Deals Come Down To The Wire

Deric Ladnier came to grips with the unique nature of the first Aug. 15
signing deadline for draft picks as the day’s end approached.

“It
was a long day, a long few days,” said Ladnier, the Royals’ scouting
director, shortly after the 11:59 p.m. Eastern deadline had passed. “It
has been an emotional roller coaster.

“The reality really slapped me in the face when I saw that clock ticking on Baseball America.”

Wednesday’s
deadline, documented by an online clock ominously counting down the
seconds at baseballamerica.com, was a new reality for teams, players
and agents. Ladnier checked how much time he had to sign California
high school third baseman Mike Moustakas (the No. 2 overall pick) as he
drove to Newport Beach, Calif.–where the Scott Boras Corporation is
headquartered–after attending the Aflac All-American Classic high
school event in San Diego over the weekend. Andrew Friedman, executive
vice president of the Devil Rays, delayed a scheduled trip to check in
on the Rays’ Triple-A Durham farm club as he tried to wrap up
negotiations from Florida with Vanderbilt lefthander David Price, the
No. 1 overall choice.

The tension may have been thickest
Baltimore, where Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail
was in a figurative staredown with Boras and Georgia Tech catcher Matt
Wieters (the No. 5 selection), who was back on campus and threatening
to go back into the 2008 draft.

The new deadline made for great
blogging and great theater. What’s debatable is whether or not it made
the draft process any better.

“I think the deadline helped,
but it’s also natural that things would gravitate toward the deadline,”
said Friedman, whose Rays could hold the No. 1 overall pick again in
2008. “We knew it was going to be expensive. And we knew it was going
to wind up close to the deadline.”

Price agreed to terms about
six hours before the cutoff, signing a six-year major league contract
that included a $5.6 million bonus and $8.25 million in guaranteed
money, with incentives that could drive the total value to $11.25
million. Moustakas and Wieters cut their deals far closer to the
deadline.

After holding out for a reported $7 million, Moustakas
agreed to a $4 million bonus with 10 minutes to go. Three minutes
before the deadline, the Orioles still were uncertain whether Wieters
would accept a $6 million bonus, the second-largest in draft history.
He did after reportedly seeking an major league deal worth more than
$10 million.

“We all knew there would be a lot of last-minute
signings,” Ladnier said. “I think we all knew there could be some sort
of frenzy on the final day, but it’s better to not have all the
signings spread out through the fall and spring.”

MLB designed
the deadline to theoretically give some leverage to clubs by limiting
extended holdouts. The commissioner’s office also reduced its bonus
recommendations for each slot in the first five rounds by 10 percent
across the board, with the anticipated effect of reducing bonuses.

The
opposite occurred, however. There were 184 picks in the first five
rounds in 2007, and 171 of them signed, receiving an average bonus of
$685,328. Last year, 179 of the first 184 picks agreed to terms,
getting an average bonus of $662,531. So despite the 10 percent
reduction in slots, the bonuses rose 3 percent.

The increase was
even more pronounced in the first round. This year’s top 30 picks
signed for an average of $2,098,083, up 9 percent from 2006
($1,933,333). The 2007 average is the third-highest ever, trailing 2001
($2,154,280) and 2002 ($2,106,793).

Several of the above-slot
deals were done weeks before the deadline, but teams were reluctant to
make them official. MLB can’t really punish any that don’t toe the
line, but no club wanted to be the first to draw the ire of the
commissioner’s office.

The deal that got the ball rolling
belonged to New Jersey prep righthander Rick Porcello, who was rated
the second-best pitcher in the draft behind only Price. Porcello fell
to the Tigers at No. 27 because of signability concerns that proved
well-founded.

On Aug. 13, word came out that Porcello would get
a $7 million major league deal (including a $3.58 million bonus),
matching the record for the biggest guarantee ever given a high school
draftee, set by Josh Beckett in 1999. Boras had set Beckett as his
target for the Porcello contract and proved that even with the deadline
and MLB’s focus on reducing bonuses, he could deliver.

Before
Porcello’s deal, the most anyone had gone above slot in the first round
was $170,000 by Georgia high school outfielder Jason Heyward, whom the
Braves drafted at No. 14. Heyward signed for $1.7 million, getting the
2006 value for his draft slot in what became a trend for late-signing
mid-first-round picks.

“It’s like with the price of gas,” one
agent grumbled during the process. “People see the price go up to $3
and get all whiny, and then the price comes down to $2.65 and everyone
gets so excited. That’s what signing for last year’s slot is like.”

Those
deals became an afterthought in a way as four of the top five picks
grappled with the repercussions of Porcello’s deal with the Tigers. So
did the final choice in the first round.

North Carolina State
righthander Andrew Brackman entered 2007 as the second-rated college
pitcher behind Price, but an elbow injury and signability concerns
(he’s another Boras client) caused him to drop to the Yankees at No. 30.

Nevertheless,
on the afternoon of Aug. 15, Brackman signed a deal that stunned
industry insiders. While his $3.35 million bonus wasn’t a surprise, he
got a major league contract that guarantees him $4.55 million. Most
shocking of all for a former college basketball player who pitched just
149 innings for the Wolfpack and needs Tommy John surgery, his deal
includes roster bonuses and club options that could drive its total
value over seven years to $13 million–making it potentially the most
lucrative contract in draft history.

Friedman conceded that the
Porcello and Brackman contracts had an impact on Price’s deal. “I’d by
lying if I said it didn’t have any effect on negotiations,” Friedman
said.

Both the Yankees and Tigers continued to splurge beyond
the first round. New York followed the Brackman announcement by signing
five more picks for a combined $3.5 million, including Texas third
baseman Brad Suttle for $1.3 million, a record for the fourth round,
and Louisiana prep shortstop Carmen Angelini for $1 million, the
second-largest bonus ever in the 10th round.

Detroit set a
short-lived sixth-round record with a $1.4975 bonus to Alabama
shortstop Cale Iorg, and also gave Illinois prep lefty Casey Crosby
$748,500 in the fifth round. Crosby’s bonus is spread out over five
years under MLB provisions for two-sport athletes, as he was a star
high school wide receiver.

Sneaking somewhat under the radar
were the Nationals, who signed Georgia high school lefty Josh Smoker
for an above-slot $1 million as the first pick in the supplemental
first round. Washington then stunned the industry with a last-minute
deal with Massachusetts prep lefty Jack McGeary. McGeary eclipsed
Iorg’s sixth-round record with a $1.8 million bonus, and the Nationals
will pay for him to attend Stanford as a full-time student and play
baseball only in the summer until he graduates.

Draft | #2007

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