Unsigned First-rounders Forced To Play Waiting Game

Three weeks before the new Aug. 15 signing deadline for draft picks,
the Devil Rays weren’t on the verge of announcing a deal with No. 1
overall choice David Price. But rather than being any cause for
concern, the situation is mostly the result of Major League Baseball’s
clampdown on bonuses.

When MLB started recommending specific bonuses for each pick in the
first five rounds in 2000, it also asked clubs that surpass those
guidelines to announce it as late as possible. The thinking is that
then fewer unsigned draftees can use over-slot bonuses as a point of
comparison while negotiating their own bonus.

The only two No. 1 overall picks who have signed quickly since then
were Adrian Gonzalez (Marlins, 2000) and Matt Bush (Padres, 2004), both
of whom agreed to predraft deals. Of the rest, Joe Mauer (Twins, 2001)
signed the earliest–on July 17 that year–and Luke Hochevar (Royals,
2006) was the only other one to come to terms before Aug. 15.

Price, a Vanderbilt lefthander who was Baseball America’s College
Player of the Year, likely will exceed the $3.5 million bonus and $5.25
million guaranteed major league contract Hochevar received. But it
probably won’t be official until a few days before the deadline.

“In a perfect world, everybody would sign right away and both sides
would be tickled,” Devil Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison said.
“It’s not a perfect world. When we took David with the top pick in the
draft, we didn’t think it would be a quick deal. There’s been nothing

Harrison said Tampa Bay general manager Andrew Friedman was handling the discussions with Price and his adviser, Bo McKinnis.

“The negotiations are ongoing,” Harrison said. “I think both sides are
confident that whenever the time’s right, a deal will get a done. It’s
not a simple thing, but it will get done. It’s just going to take time.”

Twelve other first-rounders also had yet to sign, though most of them
appeared to be situations where the player and his adviser are
resisting MLB’s reduction of bonus slots by 10 percent. Most of those
talks figure to be resolved with the draftee receiving a bonus between
the 2006 and 2007 guidelines for his choice.

The unsigned group included four players advised by Scott Boras, who
rarely acquiesces to MLB’s slot recommendations. Boras’ stable includes
California high school third baseman Mike Moustakas (No. 2, Royals),
Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters (No. 5, Orioles), New Jersey prep
righthander Rick Porcello (No. 27, Tigers) and North Carolina State
righty Andrew Brackman (No. 30, Yankees). Wieters was the top college
position prospect, while Moustakas was BA’s High School Player of the
Year and Porcello and Brackman rated as the best righties in the draft.

Boras rarely deals in specifics when talking money with teams before
the draft, but sources from several clubs said he drew parallels
between Wieters and Mark Teixeira ($9.5 million big league contract in
2001) and Porcello and Josh Beckett ($7 million major league deal in
1999). Those sources say he also described Moustakas as the best high
school hitter since Alex Rodriguez (the No. 1 overall pick in 1993) and
planned on leveraging Brackman’s two-sport status (he originally went
to N.C. State on a basketball contract). Brackman’s stock took a hit
when he injured his elbow in May, and speculation persists that he’ll
need Tommy John surgery.

Wieters and Porcello will shatter MLB’s recommendations if they sign,
yet Orioles scouting director Joe Jordan and Tigers counterpart David
Chadd remained confident they could get deals completed. Neither team
had gotten very far in negotiations, which is typical when dealing with
high-priced Boras clients.

“There haven’t been any surprises,” said Jordan, who drafted another
Boras-advised player, Texas Christian righthander Jake Arrieta, in the
fifth round. “It’s not more we’re waiting on them or they’re waiting on
us. Once Aug. 1 comes, I think we’ll try to get something done.”

Chadd is accustomed to waiting for his top picks. His two previous
first-rounders with Detroit, Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, both
signed well into the summer.

“We knew this would probably take until the final hour,” Chadd said.
“Both sides probably want to get it done quicker, but we’re not in a
position to do so. My conversations with Rick have all been positive.”

Neither McKinnis nor Boras could be reached for comment.

Slot Watch

It took 17 first-rounders to sign before one exceeded MLB’s reduced
recommendations. Arizona high school righthander Tim Alderson, the No.
22 overall pick, signed with the Giants on July 23 for $1.29
million–just $7,500 over slot.

There still hadn’t been a first-rounder who has matched or surpassed
the 2006 slot for his pick. The 17 who have signed have averaged
$1,483,235 in bonuses, while their slots have averaged $1,523,382. A
year ago, the first-rounders in the same slots averaged $1,794,117 in
bonuses and $1,692,647 in MLB recommendations.

The lower slots have meant slower signings in the first round. Thirteen
first-rounders remained unsigned, compared to just five at the same
time in 2006. One of those five, Ian Kennedy, agreed to terms weeks
earlier but the Yankees delayed announcing his signing.

Several teams are believed to have agreed to give draftees
significantly above-slot bonuses, among them the Yankees with Texas
third baseman Brad Suttle (fourth round) and Louisiana high school
shortstop Carmen Angelini (10th round) and the Tigers with Illinois
prep lefthander Casey Crosby (fifth round). But no club has been
willing to step forward and announce the first such deal.

Those revelations may not come until just before the signing deadline.

“Every club is trying to wait right now,” an American League scouting
director said, “but things are going to get blown out of the water.
It’s just that no one wants to be the first team to do so. I think
everyone is trying to appease the commissioner by waiting so the deals
can’t be used as leverage by agents.”

Three weeks before the deadline, only five players were known to have
received more than slot money, none by a significant margin. Florida
high school righthander Jiwan James signed with the Phillies in the
22nd round for $150,000, exceeding the maximum $123,300 recommended for
picks after the fifth round by $26,700. James, an exceptional athlete
whom some teams preferred as an outfielder, drew basketball and
football interest from the University of Florida, where he had signed a
baseball scholarship.

Besides Alderson and James, the others exceeding slot recommendations
were California high school lefthander Danny Duffy (Royals, third
round), Puerto Rico prep shortstop Fernando Cruz (Royals, sixth round)
and Georgia Tech shortstop Michael Fisher (Braves, sixth round). Duffy
signed for $365,000 ($500 over slot), while Cruz and Fisher each got
$125,000 ($1,700 above MLB guidelines).


• The Yankees had more unsigned players (six) than any other club in
the first 10 rounds. Besides Brackman, Suttle and Angelini, New York
also was working on three high schoolers: California catcher Austin Romine (second), Columbus (Ga.) High catcher Chase Weems (sixth) and Texas prep outfielder Taylor Grote
(eighth). As with Suttle and Angelini, there are rumors that the
Yankees have finalized deals with Weems and Grote, though they remained

• Right behind the Yankees were the Rangers and Red Sox, with five
unsigned picks in the first 10 rounds. Texas had yet to sign one of its
two first-rounders, Texas prep righthander Blake Beavan, or two of its three supplemental first-rounders, Tennessee outfielder Julio Borbon and Virginia high school righty Neil Ramirez. The Rangers also were in negotiations with Utah prep shortstop Garrett Nash (fourth round) and Florida high school lefty John Gast
(fifth). Gast likely would have been a supplemental first-rounder had
he not blown out his elbow in April and required Tommy John surgery.
Beavan, who had committed to Oklahoma, committed to Navarro (Texas)
Junior College recently, a move that would allow him to re-enter the
draft in 2008 if he failed to sign with the Rangers by the deadline.

• All five of Boston’s early unsigned draftees were high schoolers: California shortstop Ryan Dent (supplemental first round), Alabama first baseman Hunter Morris (second), Texas third baseman Will Middlebrooks (fifth), Florida first baseman Anthony Rizzo (sixth) and North Carolina first baseman David Mailman
(seventh). Middlebrooks would have been a supplemental first-rounder if
not for his $1 million price tag. Rumors are that the Red Sox are close
to finalizing or already have completed deals with Dent, Middlebrooks,
Rizzo and Mailman.

• Porcello wasn’t the only high-ceiling draftee the Tigers still were pursuing. Shortstop Cale Iorg
(sixth round) was considered a potential 2007 first-rounder before he
went on a two-year Mormon mission to Portugal following his freshman
season at Alabama. The son of a former big leaguer (Garth Iorg) and nephew of another (Dane Iorg), Cale has decided to transfer to Arizona State should he return to college ball in 2008. Texas high school righthander Barret Loux
dropped to the 24th round after he missed two months in the spring with
a shoulder strain. Pitching for the Houston Heat travel team, Loux
worked at 92-95 mph for five innings in mid-July.

• Meanwhile, the Rockies had topped all teams by signing all of their
picks through the first 13 rounds. The Brewers and Pirates had locked
up all of their draftees through the first 10 rounds.