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Has Boras overplayed his hand?

By Allan Simpson
August 2, 2002

bullington
Scott Boras
Agent Scott Boras' willingness to gamble was never more evident and never paid off more than in the 2000 and 2001 drafts. Several of his clients slipped out of the first round in the face of lofty predraft demands, yet they were paid first-round money when teams met his demands at the 11th hour.

But has Boras overplayed his hand this time?

In a year when a work stoppage looms and bonuses in the early rounds have been rigidly slotted, Boras still had a number of premium unsigned draft picks. The list includes three first-rounders and several other high-profile players who slid out of the first round because of signability.

"Some clubs have taken the approach that they are not in any hurry to sign their guys," Boras said. "That's especially the case with college pitchers. They would just as soon let these guys rest for most of the summer."

Just two Boras clients had signed by Aug. 1--albeit to eye-opening contracts. Righthander Blake Hawksworth, a 28th-round draft-and-follow, signed with the Cardinals on the eve of this year's draft for $1.4 million--the second-largest bonus ever for a draft-and-follow. Another righthander, Kiki Bengochea, an 11th-round pick of the Rangers, inked a $550,000 deal, comparable to late second-round money.

Among Boras' unsigned picks were college righthanders Bobby Brownlie (Rutgers) and Jeremy Guthrie (Stanford), the 21st and 22nd overall picks. Guthrie worked 158 innings this spring, more than any college pitcher, while Browlie battled arm-related injuries most of the spring.

Both players were projected to go in the top third of the first round but slid because of their price tags. If they are paid according to the wishes of the commissioner's office, both would earn slotted bonuses in the $1.5 million range.

Boras has always maintained that players should be paid what their talent warrants, regardless of where they are picked. He says Brownlie and Guthrie deserve more than slot money. And he's willing to wait it out--strike or no strike.

"The clubs I've dealt with have been emphatic that a strike will not be an issue," Boras said. "These teams want to get their players signed."

He's also advised righthanders Chadd Blasko (Purdue), a supplemental first-rounder, and Trevor Hutchinson (California), a third-rounder, to stick to their guns--even as such organizations as the Astros, Padres and Twins pulled offers off the table to draft picks in the face of an impending work stoppage.

One of Boras' biggest challenges will come with Clemson third baseman Jeff Baker, a projected first-rounder who fell to the fourth round as teams passed on his reported $2 million-plus asking price.

High school righthanders Jason Neighborgall and Mark McCormick were also viewed as first-round talents but fell to the seventh and 11th rounds because their bonus demands were excessive. Neither is expected to sign.

Other Boras clients fell even further and are also not expected to sign. But such scenarios are nothing new for Boras. In the end, he has almost always gotten bonuses for his clients that he was seeking all along.

In 2000, almost every Boras client slipped. As late as Sept. 1 that year, none of Boras' 10 clients had signed. But just when it looked like Boras had met his match, he got most of his players signed. He masterminded the three most lucrative deals in the second round, including one for Rockies righthander Jason Young, the 47th overall pick whose $2.75 million bonus was the fourth-highest overall. He even waited until Dec. 19 that year to sign Cubs second-rounder Bobby Hill for $1.425 million.

Last year, none of his clients signed before Aug. 1. But the Diamondbacks then shelled out $2 million--the largest bonus in the second round--for Stanford lefthander Mike Gosling, a projected first-round pick. Three weeks later Boras engineered a four-year, $9.5 million contract for third baseman Mark Teixeira.

But with teams cutting costs and the short- and long-term future of the game uncertain, the industry sentiment is that Boras may have pushed too far this year.

"I expect we'll begin to get most of our signed by about mid-August," said Boras, who indicated that he does not expect that there will be a strike.

Little Movement At Top

Four of the draft's top five picks remained unsigned, with little indication that their signings were imminent.

Talks between IMG, which represents No. 1 pick Bryan Bullington, and the Pirates were ongoing. Both sides said negotiations are cordial and they are confident that a deal will be struck, but little progress had been made.

"For the rest of us, everything pretty much hinges on when the Pirates get Bullington done," said a spokesman for one of the players drafted after Bullington.

Unlike several other teams that terminated negotiations with unsigned draft picks because of a potential work stoppage, Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield indicated those events would have no bearing on his team's negotiations with Bullington.

The Devil Rays, who have been playing a similar waiting game with No. 2 pick B.J. Upton, also say they are confident they'll get the Virginia high school shortstop in the fold. But they are reluctant to upstage the Pirates and pay Upton more than the No. 1 pick gets. And they also want to hold down the cost.

It is expected the Devil Rays will sign Upton to a 2003 major league contract, similar to one they gave to righthander Dewon Brazelton, their top pick in 2001.

Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar says the departure of scouting director Dan Jennings won't affect negotiations.

"The organization has a good relationship with Larry Reynolds and the Upton family and we've been in contact with them since Dan's departure," LaMar said. "It won't impact the negotiations at all."

Jennings left the Devil Rays to take a position with the Marlins as vice president of player development.

A's Sign First 22 Picks

Shortly after Oakland completed the signing of every one of its picks in the first 16 rounds--including all seven first-round selections--the A's learned of the death of Louisiana State third baseman Wally Pontiff, their 21st-round pick.

Pontiff died at his parents' home in Metairie, La., on July 24 of what was likely a heart abnormality. He had spent the early part of the summer playing for Wareham in the Cape Cod League and left about three weeks before his death, ostensibly because he was about to sign a contract with Oakland.

He never did sign, and A's officials said he had not agreed to an offer. Friends of Pontiff say he did not intend to sign with Oakland and left the Cape Cod early in order to rest up for his senior year at LSU.

It was the second straight year one of Oakland's unsigned draft picks died within weeks being selected. A year earlier, Washington high school third baseman Mark Hilde, a 32nd-round pick, was killed when a vehicle driven by Padres former first-round Gerik Baxter crashed near Indio, Calif.

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