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Storm brews as Boras clients remain unsigned

By Allan Simpson

Dane Sardinha
Boras client Dane Sardinha
Photo: Larry Goren

Call it the calm before the storm.

As baseball's first-year draft signing period entered August—a.k.a., the home stretch—24 of 30 first-rounders and 77 of the top 100 picks had agreed to terms. Most of the players signed promptly and amicably, avoiding the drawn-out, often bitter negotiating confrontations that frequently disrupted recent drafts.

With one or two minor exceptions, players' signing bonuses have all slotted nicely into order—just what Major League Baseball had in mind when it summoned clubs to a pre-draft 'negotiating seminar' and effectively told them, once and for all, to toe the line on escalating bonus payments.

No. 1 overall pick Adrian Gonzalez set the tone for this year's proceedings when he was given a $3 million bonus by the Marlins—almost $1 million less than the corresponding pick a year ago—and signed immediately. Outfielder Joe Borchard, the No. 12 pick, became the first player to top that figure when he signed with the White Sox Thursday night reportedly for between $3.1 million and $3.25 million.

But this spirit of cooperation could change soon as some of the draft's heavyweights remain unsigned—including all nine players being represented by hardline agent Scott Boras. He set the stage for a potentially disruptive month of August by advising all his clients before the draft not to give up their right to negotiate by agreeing in advance to financial parameters.

Predictably, almost every Boras client fell in the draft—some precipitously—and have been offered substantially less than their talent normally has warranted.

But Boras refuses to panic, even as his players remain unsigned almost two months later. He firmly believes that when push comes to shove, one or two clubs will break rank and sign their picks for substantially more than slot money.

"Teams will do what's best for themselves," Boras said confidently. "They always do. Everything so far is consistent with recent draft history."

Traditionally, contentious draft negotiations focus on the high-roller, first-round picks. But this year may be different because 10 second-rounders remain unsigned—including several high-profile talents who were projected to be among the first 10 picks overall and slid for signability reasons.

"A lot of the best players this year were not drafted in the top round, that's obvious to everyone," Boras said. "And it's because they would not agree to pre-draft deals."

Boras represents five of the unsigned second-rounders: first baseman Taggert Bozied (Twins), shortstop Bobby Hill (Cubs), third baseman Xavier Nady (Padres), catcher Dane Sardinha (Reds) and righthander Jason Young (Rockies). Nady, Sardinha and Young, in particular, were ranked among the best talents in the entire draft—yet none will get more than $1 million if form holds.

None of the 20 second-rounders that had signed to date has commanded a seven-figure bonus, meaning Boras could have a real fight on his hands. But Boras, one of the draft's most revolutionary agents, never has been known to back down.

Boras also represents two first-rounders, righthander Chris Bootcheck (Angels) and shortstop David Espinosa (Reds), and two fourth-rounders, outfielder Patrick Boyd (Pirates) and Zach Miner (Braves). All slipped from pre-draft projections—Espinosa, in part, because he had put out word he was looking for a bonus in excess of $4 million.

Boyd's stock slipped dramatically from the start of the college season as he had a poor year in college at Clemson. Still, Boras claims the Pirates have offered him a bonus in seven figures.

International Management Group, which signed No. 1 overall pick Josh Hamilton to a record $3.96 million bonus a year ago, is in much the same boat as Boras as five of the six players it represents this year remain unsigned, including first-rounders Beau Hale (Orioles) and Ben Diggins (Dodgers).

Not coincidentally, Boras and IMG were the two agent groups that defied the pre-draft strategy of clubs to try and pin down a bonus range for their prospective picks.

By contrast, players represented by other agents have had little trouble signing.

SFX, the agent conglomerate that includes California-based Arn Tellum, the Texas-based Hendricks brothers and Illinois-based Jim Bronner and Bob Gilhooley, had signed all eight of its clients, including six first-round picks. Utah-based Tommy Tanzer has five first-rounders and seven players overall, with only California high school righthander Matt Harrington (Rockies), the seventh overall selection, remaining unsigned. Harrington, rated the best prospect in the draft, is the highest unsigned pick to date.

A relative newcomer to the agent field, California-based Sosnick-Cobbe Sports, also has had excellent success getting its clients under contract. Matt Sosnick and Paul Cobbe represented nine players in this year's top 100, giving them the distinction of having more elite players than any other agency. All nine of their picks, including California junior college lefthander Phil Dumatrait (Red Sox), had signed. Sosnick-Cobbe represented 15 players in all—and every one had signed.

"We're proud of the fact that our kids signed quickly, and signed for good money," said Sosnick, who also engineered a deal with the Expos for lefthander Jason Norderum, who received the largest bonus of all the draft-and-follows from the 1999 draft.

Boras, understandably, takes a different spin and is quick to blame some of his peers for the general deflation of bonuses this year.

"There has been an influx of young agents who believe the role of representation is to be self serving," Boras said. "They are eager to tell future clients that 'I negotiated a No. 1 pick.' That has opened the door to the price fixing we've seen this year."

Ironically, the cash-poor Expos are the only team thus far that has stepped out of line with bonuses. They signed third-rounder Grady Sizemore for $2 million—a figure that will be paid out over five years because of Sizemore's status as a dual-sport athlete—and signed their top pick, Stanford righthander Justin Wayne, for $2.95 million. Wayne was the fifth pick overall but his bonus was second in size only to Gonzalez.

"That's the best example so far of what's going on with this year's draft," Boras said. "Wayne didn't agree to a pre-draft deal and look what he got."

Wayne's bonus was expected to be a benchmark for college pitchers and trigger a wave of signings as five of the eight top unsigned picks are college pitchers. But that hasn't happened.

But with August around the corner and a greater sense of urgency at hand, that could change. The real fun is about ready to start.

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