Strike could leave draft picks unsigned
By Allan Simpson
HOUSTON--Bracing for a late-season work stoppage, Astros owner Drayton McLane ordered his baseball staff to halt negotiations with its remaining unsigned draft choices, including the top three picks.
McLane said the move will save, at least for the short term, about $3 million.
The Astros budgeted $4 million to sign their draft choices and already had spent about $1 million in signing 23 picks, including fourth-round choice Mark McLemore, a lefthander from Oregon State. However, five of their top seven picks remain unsigned.
McLane said it was his two top baseball executives, president Tal Smith and GM Gerry Hunsicker, who suggested the move. While some will see the move as short-sighted for an organization built around player development, McLane said the threat of another work stoppage has made other issues more important.
"We all collectively agreed that if we have a strike, it's going to be about cash flow," McLane said. "It makes no sense to do anything else. We've got around 170 players in our minor league system, and if our players go on strike, all our revenue goes with them. We have to give back the ticket money, the signage money we've already collected, the naming-rights money. It all goes away. The central fund goes away because it's all based on television. Around 80 percent of it comes from the postseason."
In the end, McLane and his staff said they hoped there'd be no work stoppage and they could return to business as usual in a few days.
"It's not a permanent thing," Smith said. "We can change direction in a week or a month. Right now, though, we're facing different circumstances."
Neither Astros first-round pick Derick Grigsby, out of Northeast Texas Community College, nor his advisor, Jim Turner, would comment on the decision. A friend of Grigsby's described the pitcher as "very disappointed."
"This kid hasn't had an easy life," the friend said. "He has had a tough time recovering from the death of his mother two years ago, and he was getting his life back together. All he wants to do is go play professional baseball, and now he's confronted with this."
McLane said he was aware of Grigsby's circumstances, adding: "We're going to be compassionate. If there's some way to help him financially, we certainly will. The main thing we need is to get a workable labor agreement in place, and then we can get back to business."
Twins Also Pull Offers
No team has signed fewer premium picks than the Twins. Through July 17, they had signed just seven of their first 20 selections.
"We don't plan to sign a high percentage of our picks," Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff said. "We've offered fair, equitable contracts to most of them and gave them every chance to sign. They chose not to accept the offers.
"Frankly, we have a lesser need to sign all of our draft picks than we've had in the past. Our farm system's in pretty good shape and our Latin American program is strong. We also have a smaller signing budget this year."
Radcliff said his club had agreed to terms with fourth-round pick Alex Merricks, a high school lefthander from California, and would announce that signing imminently. And it still intended to sign first-round pick Denard Span. But that's it.
"Beyond him, we're essentially going to follow Houston's lead," he said. "We've taken all the other offers off the table."
In lieu of signing several early-round picks, the Twins signed Alexander Schmidt, a 16-year-old lefthander from the Netherlands, outbidding several clubs for his services.
"He was a potential first-round talent," Radcliff said. "We didn't pay that much but we see it as a fair tradeoff."
Keeping Close Tabs
It was more to get a gut check on this year's crop.
The Yellow Jackets are cautiously optimistic that three premium draft picks--righthander Micah Owings (second round, Rockies) and shortstop Tyler Greene (second round, Braves), both of whom played with the East Cobb Yankees, and righthander Jason Neighborgall (seventh round, Red Sox), who played for the Ohio Warhawks--still have designs on attending Georgia Tech. A fourth Yellow Jackets signee, third baseman Scott White, also remained unsigned but was reportedly close to a deal with the Red Sox, who selected him in the third round. As a result, White didn't participate in the tournament.
Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall could not comment publicly on his recruits, thanks to NCAA rules, until they have enrolled in school.
"We're just here babysitting," is all Hall would say.
Should Georgia Tech hang on to its recruits, it may ultimately upstage Arizona State and Clemson, which had the consensus best recruiting classes on the basis of where players were drafted.
Clemson already lost all four of its signees who were picked in the first round. Arizona State, which had commitments from three of the first seven players drafted, was still hopeful of keeping high school lefthanders Adam Loewen, drafted fourth overall by the Orioles, and Jon Lester, the top pick of the Red Sox (second round).
Giants Give 21st-Round Salute
While teams have stuck pretty closely to the commissioner's office's mandate to pay bonuses according to slot in the first five rounds, no such rules apparently exist in the later rounds.
That became evident when the Giants paid $955,000 to sign first baseman/outfielder Travis Ishikawa, their 21st-round draft pick from Federal Way (Wash.) High. It was the highest bonus awarded to date for a player drafted after the first round.
"We obviously had him much higher on our board," Giants GM Brian Sabean said. "He's very accomplished in a lot of ways, offensively and defensively. He's got a chance to hit for average and power at (first base) and be a well-above average fielder."
Dick Tidrow, the Giants' top talent evaluator, said Ishikawa also has the arm and speed to be an outfielder, though they'll start him at first base.
The Giants were able to afford such a large bonus for Ishikawa, whom Baseball America ranked as the 60th-best player in the draft, because their top picks signed quickly and for reasonable bonuses, leaving the Giants with room in their budget. They agreed to terms with Ishikawa on the day of the major league All-Star Game, the organization's deadline for offering contracts for the current season.
During most of his senior season at Federal Way High, near Seattle, Ishikawa had wowed scouts by hitting .426-9-23, but he also turned them off with his insistence that he was going to attend Oregon State if he didn't get a hefty bonus.
But the Giants worked hard to find out from Ishikawa's prospective agent, Jim McDowell, what kind of money he wanted, and they believed there was a deal to be made. On draft day, they waited as long as they could before grabbing him in the 21st round.
"You don't want to pass on someone you know will sign (in an earlier round)," Sabean said. "You want to get him in an area that you feel confident that if you do sign him it's a great coup, and if you don't there was very little lost."
McDowell said the issue of paying a signing bonus grossly out of slot wasn't an issue with the Giants.
"(Giants assistant GM) Ned Colletti never said anything to us about it," said McDowell, who orchestrated White Sox outfielder Joe Borchard's record $5.3 million signing bonus in 2000. "We just talked about Ishikawa.
"There wasn't much urgency on our part to get a deal done because of the impending strike. The Ishikawa family had decided on a number and Travis was comfortable going to college if the number wasn't there. If a strike had interrupted the process, Ishikawa would have gone to Oregon State and been fine with it. The Giants decided they were going to get this guy signed and they stepped up and did it."
With the threat of a work stoppage in the major leagues looming, there are still 12 players in the first round that remained unsigned. That includes four of the first five picks. The third round also has 12 unsigned picks, while the fifth had 13 . . . To date, the largest bonus ($2.5 million) has gone to the first player signed--Reds righthander Chris Gruler, the third overall selection. Gruler's bonus is still less than half the largest bonus paid in 2001--Twins catcher Joe Mauer's $5.15 million . . . Interestingly, the Reds are so far apart in negotiations with their second selection, Texas-San Antonio senior third baseman Mark Schramek, that he is considering offers to play in Japan. According to Japanese news agency Nippon Sports, Schramek was scheduled to work out with the Orix Blue Wave. Schramek, the 40th player drafted overall, has reportedly been offered only $150,000 by the Reds, who gained that selection because of their failure to sign first-round pick Jeremy Sowers in the 2001 draft . . . The Mariners are close to signing their first-round pick, first baseman John Mayberry Jr., who slipped to 28th overall because of signability concerns. Mayberry, who has committed to Stanford, was reportedly seeking a bonus of $3 million--well above slot money for a late first-rounder. "From what I've heard from my parents and my adviser (IMG's Casey Close), the idea is to get me signed up soon," Mayberry told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's John Hickey. "That's what I want. I want to get out there and start playing."
Contributing: Jeff Fletcher
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