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Marlins sign Stokes for more than $2 million

By Mike Berardino

Jason Stokes
Jason Stokes
Photo: Wagner Photography

FORT LAUDERDALE—In the spring of 1997, Jason Stokes walked into the baseball office at Coppell (Texas) High and was issued No. 27. It was the only jersey that would fit the short, plump freshman.

Stokes has now completed his remarkable transformation from pudgy kid to rich young man. The power-hitting first baseman/outfielder signed with the Marlins Sunday for a $2.027 million bonus. The signing came nearly three months after they drafted him in the second round, and three days before he would have started classes at Texas.

"It's a relief," said Stokes, 18. "(Sitting out this summer) was real hard. It was a burden on my shoulders."

Now 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, with size 16 feet, Stokes smiled for the cameras and slipped into a Marlins home jersey with No. 27 on the back. Though his frame has changed, he remains superstitious about his favorite number—hence the odd bonus figure. He pointed out, for instance, that his signing came on the 27th day of the month.

"It's very rare that you see a guy with this type of power at the high school level," Marlins scouting director Al Avila said. "He's extraordinary power-wise. His power is off the charts."

Stokes will report on Sept. 17 to Marlins instructional league in Viera, Fla. He will play left field and is set to begin his pro career next June in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

This marks the third-highest bonus the Marlins have paid out in their draft history. Righthander Josh Beckett, last year's No. 2 overall pick, received a $3.65 million bonus as part of a major league deal; and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, this year's top overall pick, got $3 million.

Stokes was projected to go much higher in the June draft, but teams were scared off by his $2.5 million bonus demand. The Marlins were elated, Avila said, to get such a talent in the 41st overall slot.

The club made an opening offer of $1 million, then sat on that number until bumping it up to $1.25 million about three weeks ago. Negotiations turned serious Saturday, when Stokes accepted the Marlins' offer to take batting practice at Pro Player Stadium.

Though admittedly nervous, he put on a stunning power display when he did connect, poking several balls into the club level in deep left-center.

"I was kind of nervous," Stokes said. "My hands were shaking."

By late Saturday night the two sides had reached the framework of a deal, with the details ironed out Sunday morning. Avila credited the family's adviser, Brian Peters of IMG, with keeping negotiations cordial and productive.

Peters also represents Chip Ambres, the outfielder from Beaumont, Texas, who signed with the Marlins for $1.5 million two summers ago. Peters also counts Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee and right-hander Brad Penny among his clients.

Stokes' bonus was more than the figure paid three players taken in the top half of the first round. It also represented the largest amount for any player taken after Arizona righthander Ben Diggins at No. 17 overall. No other second-rounder has received more than $800,000.

"This boy is determined to play baseball," Avila said. "He loves to play the game. If we didn't think we'd be able to sign him for around what we thought, we wouldn't have taken him. There was a lot of UT talk, but we also knew his desire to play."

Marlins area scout Bob Laurie, who had followed Stokes since early in his junior year, continued to keep tabs on him this summer. Stokes credited Laurie with discovering him and spreading word of his talent, which blossomed after a growth spurt before his junior season.

"He was a porker," Avila said, smiling. "He was a fat kid that worked his butt off for three years to make himself into someone with this physique. He worked hard to earn this. It's not like this kid was the anointed one. This kid worked for that ability. That shows you his determination."

Stokes' signing continued a remarkable streak in these contentious times. Since their first draft in June 1992, the Marlins have signed every player they have taken in the first two rounds. They are 17 for 17; they lost their second-round pick in 1996 as compensation for signing Al Leiter.

In fact, no Marlin taken before the fifth round has gone unsigned. This year's third-round pick, lefthander Rob Henkel of UCLA, remains unsigned, but his fall classes don't start until Sept. 28.

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