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Signings move on as trouble looms

By Allan Simpson
July 8, 2002

July 1 is normally the first checkpoint in the draft’s summer-long signing phase, and here’s how this year’s numbers stack up:

• Half of the 30 first-round picks had signed.

• The average bonus for those 15 players is $1.751 million.

• 36 percent of players drafted in the first 10 rounds had not signed.

The numbers are in line with recent draft history, but an X factor is involved this year: the possibility of a work stoppage in August or September. That could spell trouble for players and agents looking for signing bonuses comparable to last year’s record-breaking numbers.

Of the top six picks this year, only No. 3 Chris Gruler had signed so far. Gruler did so with the Reds after a predraft agreement to a $2.5 million bonus–$1.7 million less than the same slot paid a year ago.

The top five picks in 2001 all earned bonuses of at least $4 million, but only after holding out most of last summer. If a work stoppage interrupts the season and players remain unsigned, it is unlikely clubs will be willing to hand out bonuses anywhere near $4 million. For now, Gruler’s bonus is the benchmark.

The Pirates and Devil Rays, who picked first and second overall, were not close to signing Ball State righthander Bryan Bullington or Virginia high school shortstop B.J. Upton. And it’s unlikely the next three unsigned players will sign until the top two have set the market.

"Basically, we’re just sitting and waiting for something ahead of us to happen," said Orioles scouting director Tony DeMacio, who has tried in vain to get a deal done with Canadian lefthander Adam Loewen, the No. 4 overall pick. "We’ve made them an initial offer, but there’s really been no counteroffer. It could be a long wait."

The Pirates targeted three players, Bullington, Loewen and Upton, for the No. 1 pick, only to learn that none was prepared to accept less than $4 million. They rolled the dice on Bullington, knowing he could hold out most of the summer.

The Pirates have had only preliminary discussions with IMG, the agency representing Bullington.

"Our conversations have been cordial," said Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield. "It’s just a slow process."

Upton and the Devil Rays have exchanged offers but also are a good distance apart in negotiations. Tampa Bay’s delicate financial situation is affecting those negotiations, and chances are good that Upton will end up accepting either a major league contract or one with the bonus is spread over five years–if he signs at all.

Domino Effect

Among the players from the early rounds who have signed, almost all have fallen right into bonus slots–much to the delight of the commissioner’s office, which made it clear to clubs than it wanted bonuses to be kept closely in check this year.

Among the first 100 picks, the only real exception occurred in the third round, where the Dodgers spent $950,000 on Arizona high school catcher Mike Nixon. Nixon gave up a football scholarship to play safety for UCLA and had been recruited as a quarterback by Arizona State and Notre Dame. Because of his dual-sport status, the Dodgers can spread Nixon’s bonus over five years–significantly reducing its present value.

One other notable exception occurred in the 11th round, where Miami righthander Kiki Bengochea’s $550,000 bonus from the Rangers raised a few eyebrows. Texas and agent Scott Boras have had a cozy relationship since Alex Rodriguez, a Boras client, signed his record $252 million contract in 2000.

Projected as a first-round pick at the start of the year, Bengochea went 6-7, 5.63 for the Hurricanes and his stock slipped dramatically. That didn’t deter the Rangers, who had no picks in rounds two through five. They believe they found the kind of talent that made up for the lack of early picks.

"Do we think he’s better than an 11th-rounder? Yeah, we do," assistant general manager Grady Fuson said. "We’ve seen him since high school. He throws 88 to 92 (mph). He’s got a good sinker and good slider. I’ve seen him dominate at times. He just had a rough time of it this year. He was pretty good at the end, though."

Bob Brower, a representative for the Scott Boras Corp., defended the size of the bonus. Bengochea was the first of 12 Boras clients to sign.

"It’s always about talent," Brower said. "This is a different kid with wood bats and his bonus reflects that."

Declining Bonuses

The 15 first-round picks to sign agreed to bonuses averaging $1.751 million–11 percent less than the $1.965 million players in the same slots earned in 2001.

The figure should change once several high-priced first-rounders sign, though it could take the rest of the summer. Besides the five unsigned picks at the top, other first-rounders who are most likely to command greater than slot money are righthanders Bobby Brownlie (Cubs, 21st) and Jeremy Guthrie (Indians, 22nd), lefthander Scott Kazmir (Mets, 15th) and outfielder Jeff Francoeur (Braves, 23rd).

Brower and Guthrie are Boras clients, Kazmir has a price tag in excess of $3 million, and Francoeur has a football scholarship to Clemson as leverage.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers have had the greatest success signing picks, agreeing to terms with their first 10. The Athletics, with six extra picks, had signed 20 of their first 22.

The Orioles and Twins were having the greatest struggle to sign their picks. Baltimore had signed only one of its first seven, while Minnesota signed just four of its first 15.

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