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Marlins find just what they want, need in Gonzalez

By Mike Bernardino

FORT LAUDERDALE—Considering the sport, this was a strange sight indeed. Unprecedented, according to veteran draftniks.

Here was Adrian Gonzalez, smiling wide for the cameras on draft day at Pro Player Stadium, holding up a No. 1 Marlins jersey with his last name stitched across the back. Flanked by Marlins officials, the first No. 1 overall pick in franchise history wasted little time joining the organization.

Gonzalez, a high school first baseman from suburban San Diego, accepted a $3 million signing bonus as early as the Thursday before the draft. He did so without delay or rancor, concepts that have become as much a part of the baseball draft in recent years as "makeup" and "high ceiling."

"They offered the money, and I said, ‘I’ll take it,’ " a beaming Gonzalez said after taking his first round of batting practice with the Marlins. "I don’t care about the money."

This, of course, had to be music to the ears of the cash-strapped Marlins. Determined to avoid a third straight protracted holdout—following outfielder Chip Ambres and righthander Josh Beckett—the Marlins opted for a late bloomer who was ready to sign.

Gonzalez became the first player since Phil Nevin in 1992 to receive less bonus money than the previous year’s top pick. The Devil Rays gave outfielder Josh Hamilton $3.96 million to sign last summer, making the Gonzalez deal a 25 percent rollback.

In a draft class considered weak overall, lacking that one knockout future all-star, the Marlins traveled the safe route. It is unfair to say signability was the only factor in the choice, though. Gonzalez said the Devil Rays, picking sixth, told him they would have picked him had he fallen that far.

"For us it’s a clear picture: We selected the best player in this year’s draft," Marlins scouting director Al Avila said. "Adrian was the most complete player . . . the best hitting prospect in this year’s draft. He has an outstanding work ethic and makeup. For such a young player he has quite a bit of experience and leadership qualities. He’s a tough, determined, hard-working guy."

Consensus Choice

High school catcher Scott Heard, the Marlins’ runner-up choice, slid to the Rangers at 25th overall. Third choice Matt Harrington, a hard-throwing high school righthander, went to the Rockies seventh overall.

As for widespread talk that Marlins scouts were deeply divided on the top choice, Avila said the organization was confident it had chosen the right player.

"I can say he is a guy we feel very good about," Avila said. "There were differences of opinion on different players among our people. You’re going to get that in this type of year. But as a group, there’s not one guy who said, ‘I can’t live with this.’ Everybody thinks this is a good pick."

Marlins area scout David Finley saw Gonzalez play about 20 games over the past 16 months, including 10 to 12 times his senior season at Chula Vista’s Eastlake High, when he hit .645-13-34 in 76 at-bats. Finley fell in love with a player whose defense sparks comparisons to Mark Grace and whose smooth swing resembles that of a young Rafael Palmeiro.

"Every time I went to see him, he got two or three hits," Finley said. "He probably hit eight or nine home runs in the games I saw him this year. He’s polished. That’s why he’s going to go out and hit from day one."

Finley threw batting practice to Gonzalez seven or eight times, including as late as the Thursday before the draft. Each time his smooth lefthanded swing passed the wood-bat test.

According to the Marlins, Gonzalez began the scouting season on the radar but ranked perhaps no higher than 15th. By early March, as the list began to narrow and Gonzalez continued to impress, his stock rose.

"Three months ago, we said, ‘Wait a minute. Why aren’t we considering this guy?’ " Finley said. "He played himself into this status."

Gonzalez’ name stuck even as the Marlins kept whittling their list to a half-dozen, then to five. With three weeks to go until D-day, the list was down to Gonzalez, Harrington and Heard.

Not About Money?

Despite rumors to the contrary, the Marlins never made an offer to Heard or Harrington before settling on Gonzalez. They informed the Gonzalez family of their strong interest eight days before the draft, making a token offer in the range of $2 million.

By Wednesday talks had intensified. By Thursday an agreement was reached with John Boggs, who advised the family.

"It’s not about money," said David Gonzalez, the player’s father and a former standout first baseman on the Mexican national team. "Any team that drafted him, it wasn’t going to be about money. We signed because we like the Marlins. We like this situation. They are a young team. For a young player, a young team is better."

The elder Gonzalez is worth seven figures. For a quarter century the family has owned Aire Tec, an air-conditioning firm with 80 employees and five branches in San Diego.

Asked what kind of showy purchase he would make with his draft haul, Adrian Gonzalez drew a blank. He didn’t need a new car, he said, because his father had already bought him a 2000 Volvo C-70 convertible.

Both of Adrian’s older brothers played college baseball. Dave Gonzalez Jr. played at Point Loma (Calif.) Nazarene, while Edgar Gonzalez, a third baseman at San Diego State, was a 30th-round pick of the Devil Rays this year.

At the start of his senior season, Gonzalez was just hoping to go in the first three rounds. Instead he joined a roster that includes names like Ken Griffey, Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez.

"I never had high expectations for myself," said Gonzalez, who had signed to play at San Diego State. "On the field I did, but not in the draft. I was ready to sign anywhere in the first three rounds. This is just like icing on the cake, I guess."

Gonzalez was just the second first baseman taken with the top pick in the draft’s 36-year history, joining Ron Blomberg, taken by the Yankees in 1967.

While it was all smiles and backslaps in South Florida on draft day, one leading agent expressed dismay at the Marlins’ flouting of baseball rules against cutting predraft deals.

"They get their guy done; he’s waiting at the stadium," the agent said. "Sandy Alderson’s trying to control all these big bonuses. Let’s see if he fines the Marlins for breaking the rules. It’s a double standard. It’s unbelievable."

For the Marlins, watching their top pick sign on so easily, seeing is believing.

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