Deadline Approaches

As I returned home from a two-week stint on the high school showcase circuit, it’s time to shake out the notebook and share a few tidbits I picked up along the way during conversations with the most respected scouting minds in the industry.

Because the East Coast Showcase, Area Code Games and Aflac game offer the chance to see many of the nation’s top high school players in one setting, I ran into more than half of the 30 scouting directors at one point or another, and one prevailing point they all articulated during small talk was their ambivalence over how much improvement has been made by Major League Baseball’s pressure on them to reduce signing bonuses in the first five rounds of the draft.

Toronto’s Jon Lalonde was the only scouting director that didn’t seem to be permanently attached to his cell phone, as every other director seemed to be constantly slipping out of the stands to take a call regarding contract negations with still unsigned picks from their team’s 2007 draft. The Blue Jays have signed each of their first 11 selections, making them a minority among clubs.

“I understand the philosophy they’re trying to push, but at least the first time around, it has made this summer one of the more frustrating ones in recent memory in terms of trying to get these guys signed and out and playing,” said one American League scouting director, who like each of his counterparts, preferred to speak anonymously. “These players and their agents have expectations, and we have initially tried to abide by the commissioner’s office recommendations, despite how little the agents want to listen. Of course, we have a responsibility to try and judge signability of each of our picks carefully as we go into the draft, but there have been a few too many cases of both sides sitting on a number and neither side working toward an agreement.

“I know there are other deals that are done, and I have a feeling that those last two days (before the Aug. 15 signing deadline), we’re going to find out how it will all shake out.”

The overarching sentiment is that scouting directors believe in the general principle of reducing signing bonuses, but aren’™t willing to endorse a decision to watch a first or second-round pick slip through their grasp if the other 29 teams aren’™t going to do the same. Already, there have been a handful of players to sign for bonuses greater than the recommended slot, and there are going to be dozens more in the next 48 hours.

“We’re all interested in signing for less,” said a second AL scouting director. “But every year the people we work for sit down and evaluate (our farm) system. They evaluate the draft, they evaluate the personnel we have brought in and how they’re performing. Baseball America evaluates the draft and the systems, so if you don’t think there’s pressure to get players out that we have a chance to sign, you’re overlooking a huge factor in all of this. We have a job, and that’s to go out and get players who have a chance to get to the major leagues.

“We’re not going to be one of those renegade clubs that go out and blow up the slots year in and year out. But if we have a chance to draft and sign a player that we believe will be a premium player in our system and make a contribution to our big league team, you do it.

“Do I want to take a bullet for the industry? Do I want to sit back and watch (our first-round pick) go (unsigned) for the sake of a new policy? I don’t think I can. I have mouths to feed and my area scouts and crosscheckers have mouths to feed. We have good jobs, and we’d like to keep them. The commissioner’s not paying my salary.”

Another scouting director said that this summer had been one of his most unproductive in terms of evaluating players for next year’s draft because of the time and energy exerted in negotiations with unsigned picks.