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Rare restraint tests picks’ patience

By Allan Simpson
August 15, 2002

Signing bonuses have grown at an exponential rate over the last 15 years, roughly paralleling the inflation of major league player salaries. With ownership’s desire to control payments to players at the crux of the ongoing labor negotiations, clubs finally seem to be showing signs of exercising the restraint in this year’s draft that they haven’t shown in years.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the first round, especially in the first five picks.

When California high school righthander Chris Gruler signed with the Reds for the modest figure of $2.5 million immediately after being selected with the third overall pick, few realized Gruler would be the only player selected in the first five to sign over the next 10 weeks. Or that his bonus would be the largest paid to date.

Last year, every player selected in the top five signed for at least $4 million, topped by No. 1 overall pick Joe Mauer’s $5.15 million bonus. No. 2 pick Mark Prior got $4 million, but received a major league contract that guaranteed him $10.5 million.

Those numbers are a far cry from the $160,000 bonus that Ken Griffey received from the Mariners as the No. 1 pick in 1987.

Clubs aren’t attempting to roll back costs quite to that level this year, but they’ve made a concerted effort to keep bonuses in check. The threat of a costly work stoppage has been a factor as well.

The Pirates continue to talk amicably with top pick Bryan Bullington, but have budged little in negotiations. Neither the Pirates nor IMG, the agency that represents Bullington, said a signing is imminent.

That’s bad news for the remaining unsigned picks, who have waited for Bullington’s bonus to set the market. All are high school products and can’t wait much longer, with college classes due to start later in August. So the pressure for them has intensified.

Little Movement

upton
Still Unsigned
No. 2 pick B.J. Upton
Negotiations between the Devil Rays and No. 2 overall pick B.J. Upton have taken their share of twists and turns. Upton, a high school shortstop from Chesapeake, Va., was originally offered a $3.2 million bonus. That has since been bumped up to $4.2 million, but the terms of payment have held up a deal.

The cash-strapped Devil Rays want to backload the contract and pay out just $100,000 now. The balance would be paid out over a five-year period–through a major league contract or a provision that allows teams to spread out payments to dual-sport athletes like Upton.

Either way, it’s a step down from 2001, when the Devil Rays committed $4.8 million to righthander Dewon Brazelton, including $4.2 million as a bonus.

"Nothing is imminent," said a spokesman for Upton. "We’ve got some fundamental issues to work through."

Upton is scheduled to attend classes at Florida State on Aug. 26, but was considering enrolling at a junior college and possibly re-entering the draft next year if he cannot reach an agreement with the Devil Rays. Tampa Bay director of player personnel Cam Bonifay said he was hopeful a deal with Upton can be worked out before he enrolls in school.

The Orioles, with the No. 4 pick, also have made little headway with lefthander Adam Loewen, who recently starred for Canada at the World Junior Championship–as an outfielder.

"I guess I thought I would be in the tournament because of what my advisers told me," said Loewen, who hit .733 and was named the event’s best hitter. "They said it would take awhile because of the guys ahead of me.

"We haven’t talked lately, but I anticipate things will get going once the tournament is over and I get back home. Things should get more serious at that time."

At the request of the Orioles, Loewen agreed not to pitch at the tournament. But that is all they have agreed on.

Owner Peter Angelos has instructed his scouting staff to take a hard-line stance with Orioles draft picks, and they are likely to take the same approach with Loewen, who is scheduled to attend classes at Arizona State on Aug. 26.

Righthander Clint Everts, the fifth overall pick, will end up in school at Baylor if the Expos are not allowed to re-open negotiations with the Houston righthander. Major League Baseball owns the Expos and instructed general manager Omar Minaya to halt negotiations with Everts in the second week of August. At the time, the two sides were close to a deal. Classes at Baylor begin Aug. 23.

Nine And Dwindling?

Nine first-rounders remained unsigned as of Aug. 15, though there were strong indications that the Phillies were close to a deal with San Diego high school lefthander Cole Hamels (No. 17 overall) and the Twins with Florida prep outfielder Denard Span (No. 20 overall).

"We’re close," Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever said of negotiations with Hamels. "We hope to get it done in the next week. We’re not that far away. I would be shocked if it didn’t get done."

The number of unsigned first-rounders shrunk when two Texas pitchers, lefthander Scott Kazmir and righthander Derick Grigsby, agreed to terms with the Mets and Astros.

Kazmir, Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year, was originally seeking a bonus in excess of $3 million and as a result slid to No. 15 overall. He settled on $2.15 million, receiving one of the largest amounts at a time when the commissioner’s office has closely monitored bonuses.

"I’m so relieved to get this part of it over with," said Kazmir, who was assigned to the Mets’ short-season Brooklyn club. "Now I can get on to playing baseball. That’s all I wanted to do."

Astros owner Drayton McLane had halted negotiations with Grigsby and several other unsigned picks in July because he was worried a work stoppage would leave his club with a cash-flow problem. At the time, five of the team’s top seven picks were unsigned. But McLane later changed his mind when his baseball staff convinced him they could structure deals in a way that would delay payment on a large portion of the contract.

Grigsby, drafted 29th overall, received $1.125 million, the smallest bonus in the first round. He also was signed to a 2003 contract, meaning he can’t begin his pro career until the Astros begin instructional league in September. But he was just glad to get a deal done.

"It’s a big relief," Grigsby said. "I feel there’s a lot of weight off my shoulders. It wasn’t looking good there for a while. I was in a bad mood."

The Astros also were expected to make a serious run at second-rounder Mitch Talbot, a Utah high school lefthander, and seventh-rounder Scott Robinson, who elevated his stock this summer playing for the National Baseball Congress World Series champion Alaska Goldpanners.

Contributing: Paul Hagen, Richard Justice (Houston Chronicle), Michael Levesque.

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