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Teams Grow to Accept Huge Bonuses

By David Rawnsley

OMAHA–It might very well be that the 1999 draft is best remembered for . . . the players.

There were no loophole free agents or $10 million contracts, no J.D. Drew-style holdouts and few acrimonious negotiations. The commissioner’s office attempted no last-minute rule changes and the word "arbitrator" was never whispered.

In fact, every player from the first round and supplemental first-round signed by the end of August, the first time that happened since 1990. To find the first unsigned player you have to go all the way to the second round, the 63rd pick overall, to Jason Cooper, who is now a freshman at Stanford.

The most important reason is the enormous amount of money teams are spending on the top amateur talent. Scouting directors have become almost immune to the size of bonuses, the players are overwhelmed by it and agents are competing harder for players than the clubs in order to get their slice.

A total of 34 players, including all but one first-rounder, received signing bonuses of more than $1 million. Seventy-six players in the first 10 rounds received more than $500,000, and 127 players took home at least $200,000. Even Pirates’ 39th-round pick Patrick O’Brien received a $500,000 bonus.

This draft also was one of the most predictable in history. The top three players–outfielder Josh Hamilton (Devil Rays), righthander Josh Beckett (Marlins) and catcher/first baseman Eric Munson (Tigers)–were tabbed early in the spring, with the only questions being whether Munson’s broken hand would become a concern or Beckett’s bonus demands would scare the top teams away. Neither happened, as Munson returned in May and Beckett signed a four-year, $7 million major league contract.

Two themes at the top of the draft were the dominance of pitchers over position players and the number of compensation picks. There were 21 compensation picks between the first and second rounds, most of them belonging to the Orioles, Padres, Royals and White Sox. As a result, those four organizations held 21 of the first 51 picks.

That the Orioles held so many extra picks highlighted what many see as a flaw in the system that awards draft picks to teams that lose free agents. Because they finished in the bottom half of the 1998 standings (putting them in the top half of the draft), the Orioles didn’t lose their first-round pick–even after signing free agents Albert Belle, Will Clark, Delino DeShields and Mike Timlin. They did lose their second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-round selections.

But when teams with picks in the second half of the first round signed Orioles free agents Roberto Alomar, Eric Davis and Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles got their first-round picks. The Orioles also gained supplemental picks for losing each of those free agents.

So while the Orioles signed four Type A free agents and lost three, they gained six extra draft picks before they lost any.

The White Sox and Royals decided that they would spend their extra picks on the best pitchers available. Chicago selected pitchers with 14 of its first 15 picks, including their top five selections, while Kansas City drafted pitchers with its top seven picks.

Overall, pitchers accounted for 36 of the first 50 selections.

With so many players signing quickly, the summer was full of outstanding performances by first-year players.

Hamilton, who signed less than 48 hours after being drafted, dominated Appalachian League pitchers before earning a promotion to the New York-Penn League. Outfielder Vince Faison (Padres), lefthander Alex Graman (Yankees) and righthander Kyle Snyder (Royals) joined Hamilton as 1999 draft picks who were named the top prospects in their respective leagues.

The most notable performance came from Athletics first-round pick Barry Zito, who used a dominating curveball to jump from Class A all the way to Triple-A and even helped pitch Vancouver to the Triple-A World Series championship. The only other 1999 draftee who reached Triple-A was Diamondbacks reliever Jeremy Ward, a second-round pick.

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