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Reaction mixed on Borchard signing

By Jerry Crasnick

Joe Borchard
Joe Borchard
Photo: Bill Nichols

NEW YORK—The Chicago White Sox have been a model of cost efficiency this season, leading the American League Central with baseball's 26th-highest payroll.

The commissioner's office wishes they exercised the same restraint in signing draft picks.

While the White Sox insist they did what was necessary in signing former Stanford outfielder Joe Borchard to a $5.3 million bonus as the 12th pick in the June first-year player draft, the ripples are already being felt.

Sandy Alderson, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, was in Australia doing some pre-Olympic legwork when the White Sox and Borchard's adviser, Jim McDowell, reached the agreement. Judging from his reaction, that was probably a good thing.

"In my judgment, it isn't a good signing," Alderson said. "It's unfortunate when clubs that are usually at the forefront of industry criticism end up adopting the same practices themselves."

Alderson was referring, we presume, to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who led management's hard-line stance during the 1994 strike, only to turn around and anger his fellow owners two years later by signing free agent Albert Belle to a five-year, $55 million contract.

While the Borchard signing won't generate the same caliber of fallout, it still has created some animosity among clubs who think the White Sox undermined baseball's latest efforts to hold the line on spiraling bonuses.

"I've heard from a couple of teams who congratulated me and said, 'Great job,' " White Sox scouting director Duane Shaffer said. "And I've heard from other teams that said, 'Why did you give it to him?' "

In May, Alderson met with scouting directors for what the commissioner's office termed "negotiating training." Some agents suggested baseball had something more akin to collusion in mind. Draft picks, unlike major league free agents, aren't protected by collusion language in the Basic Agreement.

Alderson now cites Borchard's bonus as evidence that clubs didn't conspire to fix the price of draft picks. "I think this signing tends to prove that collusion was probably a figment of an unsuccessful agent's imagination," he said.

For sure, baseball has fiscal sanity on the brain. In 1987, Ken Griffey Jr. received a $160,000 bonus from Seattle as the top pick in the draft. Outfielder Josh Hamilton, selected No. 1 last year by Tampa Bay, signed for a bonus of $3.96 million.

Alderson's meeting appeared to have the desired effect when Florida drafted San Diego high school first baseman Adrian Gonzalez with the first pick and signed him immediately for $3 million, nearly $1 million less than Hamilton received a year ago.

With a few exceptions—most notably former Stanford righthander Justin Wayne, who signed for $2.95 million as the fifth overall pick by the Expos—other first-round choices fell neatly into line in a slotting rotation behind Gonzalez.

Then along came Borchard.

The White Sox say Borchard's bonus was justifiable for two reasons: He was the most talented player in the draft and, as a quarterback on the Stanford football team, he had more options than most.

Borchard, a switch-hitter, batted .333 with 19 homers and was a second-team All-America selection this year for Stanford. Shaffer said Borchard's power, athleticism and "nose for the ball" invite comparisons with former Atlanta outfielder Dale Murphy. Other draft observers had Larry Walker in mind.

"In my opinion, Joe Borchard was the best player in the country without a doubt," Shaffer said. "I don't even think it was close."

Although some draft watchers downplayed Borchard's football future, it was very real. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Borchard has an NFL body. Based on the opinion of NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.—who rated Georgia's Quincy Carter, Borchard and Michigan's Drew Henson as the top three junior quarterbacks in the nation this year—Borchard also possesses NFL skills. (Incidentally, Carter struggled as an outfielder for four seasons in the Cubs system and remains under contract to Chicago, while Henson doubles as a highly regarded third-base prospect who recently was traded by the Yankees to the Reds in the Denny Neagle trade.)

"He has a great arm, he's mobile and he's smart," Kiper said of Borchard. "If he went back to Stanford and had a great year, he could have gone into April and been the No. 1 pick overall."

Shaffer said the White Sox' detractors would be well served to consider Borchard's two-sport leverage. He also considers Borchard's bonus reasonable, if not a bargain, when compared with the major league contracts that Florida's Josh Beckett and Detroit's Eric Munson signed out of last year's draft.

"For people to criticize us, it's totally unfair," Shaffer said. "This is my 10th year as scouting director here, and it's the first time we've done anything away from the norm.

"The attitude seems to be, 'If you give a kid a major league contract, that's OK. But if you give him a minor league contract, you're an idiot and you've made a big mistake.' I don't buy that."

The consensus is that over the long term, the White Sox will be proven astute if Borchard fulfills his promise as a player. He gave up football to collect his $5.3 million over the next 2 1/2 years, so there's no room for second thoughts in the equation.

"I'll tell you in five years," Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden said. "If he ends up being a superstar or a J.D. Drew-caliber player, and he was going to go play football if he didn't get the money, it may be a good sign. Only time will tell."

Short term, Bowden's Reds stand be as affected by the Borchard signing as any club. Cincinnati's top four picks are still unsigned. That group includes two players—Miami high school shortstop David Espinosa and Pepperdine catcher Dane Sardinha—represented by Scott Boras.

Boras and the International Management Group's Brian Peters and Casey Close refrained from predraft arrangements with clubs, then watched several premium players slip as a result. But Boras is convinced the top talent will ultimately receive its true worth.

"The question is, what market are you in?" Boras said. "Of the top 10 picks, you saw the guys that prenegotiated and the guys who didn't. The first four picks were done deals, in the bank. Then all of a sudden the fifth pick comes along and says, 'I want what Jeff Austin got.' "

While Wayne received his $2.95 million from the Expos, the lone remaining top 10 selection still unsigned is California high school pitcher Matt Harrington, who went to Colorado at No. 7.

Harrington's Plan B is a baseball scholarship to attend Arizona State. Based on adviser Tommy Tanzer's reaction to Borchard's signing, he just became a more expensive proposition for the Rockies.

"Now they realize they should have done something sooner," Tanzer said. "Not only do I feel like my kid is the best player. But every trade journal, every scout and the Colorado Rockies have said it. It just gets harder now.'"

While the prenegotiated agreements slotted in neatly, the Borchard signing could be a precursor to some bigger numbers. Can the pitching-poor Rockies afford not to sign Harrington or their second-round pick, Stanford's Jason Young? Talk about players with leverage.

And talk about more of the same for baseball.

"If clubs sign players in the second round for the kind of money that these draft picks are insisting upon, the clubs will have created a 60-player first round," Alderson said. "And they'll hang themselves."

Jerry Crasnick is the national baseball writer for Bloomberg Sports. You can contact him by sending e-mail to jerrycrasnick@baseballamerica.com.

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