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Teams hold the line on bonuses

By Josh Boyd
May 23, 2003

Maybe it’s because they’ve seen so many highly touted prospects come and go. Maybe they’re reluctant to praise the draft class due to the fear of escalating signing bonuses.

Maybe it’s just in their nature to be skeptical about the chances of 18-year-old amateurs developing into major leaguers.

Or maybe it’s because we’re just two years removed from one of the strongest drafts in history. But scouting directors can’t stop themselves from recalling that 2001 draft class.

"There’s no Mark Priors, Mark Teixeiras or Joe Mauers in this class," they say, holding up a crop that has already delivered Prior, Teixeira and Dewon Brazelton to the majors, with Mauer and Gavin Floyd, who rounded out the top five picks, considered two of the minors’ best prospects.

"That was a real good draft," Mets scouting director Jack Bowen said, "but what will happen is the players in this year’s draft won’t turn out to be Teixeira or Prior, but a lot of these players will be a lot better than we expected."

Another scouting director agreed. "It’s not as good (as 2001) very early in the draft, but it’s a considerably deep draft rounds two through seven."

Others just haven’t been impressed. "This is the weakest draft I’ve seen in several years as far as down through the depth of the draft," one National League scouting director said. "It’s unfair to even compare to 2001."

Padres scouting director Bill Gayton added, "I think coming into the year we thought it would be better than last year, but overall it’s been largely disappointing."

Like a year ago, there might not be a clear-cut No. 1 prospect. Is it Southern second baseman Rickie Weeks? Is it California high school outfielder Delmon Young? How about lefthander Adam Loewen, who may not even be available on June 3? Maybe it’s Florida prep outfielder Ryan Harvey.

That decision will be left up to the Devil Rays, who hold the first overall pick for the second time in franchise history. Their front office hadn’t reached a verdict two weeks before the draft, and was believed to be split on Young vs. Weeks. General manager Chuck LaMar and scouting director Cam Bonifay were reportedly among those leaning toward Young.

Despite an organization full of young outfielders like Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford in the big leagues, and Wes Bankston, Jason Pridie, the Gomes brothers, Elijah Dukes and Joey Gathright in the minors, the Devil Rays won’t let their organization strength influence their first choice.

"A lot of people are questioning that," an AL scouting director said. "But as a scouting director who’s picked high in the draft, I can say you can’t compromise too much on taking who you and your scouts have done work on. You’ve got to take who you think is the best guy."

LaMar agreed. "Most normal development situations take three to four years to get to the major leagues anyway," he said. "So much can change during that time period. If an outfielder is the best bat on the board, you have to pick the best player on the board. I don’t think you use our draft like the NBA and NFL to get needs."

While money isn’t expected to be the overriding factor in their decision, the Devil Rays haven’t been in position to pay a huge signing bonus up front since giving Josh Hamilton $3.96 million in 1999. So a player’s signability could be the ultimate tiebreaker.

Weeks is represented by Lon Babby and Damon Jones, newcomers to the baseball industry who have established their names in the NBA. Young is advised by SFX. Neither Weeks nor Young has the two-sport background that would allow the Devil Rays to spread bonus payments over five years, as they did with Crawford in 1999, Baldelli in 2000 and B.J. Upton last year. Unless he gets a major league deal (like Dewon Brazelton’s deal in 2001), the first pick is going to receive a very large upfront bonus check.

Weeks and Young also aren’t going to be bargains. Last year the Pirates signed Ball State righthander Bryan Bullington to a $4 million bonus as the No. 1 pick, a number Weeks and Young are hoping to eclipse.

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Pressure from the commissioner’s office should again help keep bonuses in check. Major League Baseball has recommended bonuses for each draft slot for the past three years to slow bonus inflation, and the approach has worked. The average first-round bonus last year was down by 3.2 percent from 2001, to an average of $1.9 million.

"The numbers are in," one scouting director said. "Draft bonuses will be down. Look at what’s happening in the major leagues. We can’t justify a decrease in major league salaries and keep giving more and more bonus money to amateurs."

Agents said they expect the trend of tighter bonuses to continue after clubs have seen the benefits of restraint the last couple of years. The restraint has led to a new draft term: slot money, or simply slot, the expected bonus from each pick at the top of the draft.

"Giddy with success from successfully suppressing the major and minor league free agent markets over the winter, it’s to be expected," one agent said. "The economy is still soft and attendance is reportedly lagging, so the planets are aligned for MLB to turn the screws in an area where there has been no restraint. If the clubs fall in line and stay there, I think it’ll be very difficult for advisers to tell their clients to hold out for more than slot.

"As we all know, the wild card is Loewen. If he isn’t signed by Baltimore for what he was asking last year, the fix is in."

One thing that hasn’t changed is team executives’ frustration at handing out millions of dollars to unproven players, and then hearing complaints from players and agents that it isn’t enough.

"What job can you have a million-dollar bonus and your college paid for before you walk in the office?" one scouting director said. "The team has no guarantee. The only guarantee in the whole process is my check to the player."

To bring themselves closer to a guaranteed return, more teams are focusing on the college ranks. The first round of this draft could include the most college picks ever, exceeding the record 21 (of 28 picks) selected in 1992.

That would be a drastic change from last year, when seven of the first eight picks were high school players. Yet many scouting directors don’t think the college class of 2003 warrants the extra attention.

"I’m not convinced the depth is there," said Tigers scouting director Greg Smith, who holds the third pick.

Others are happy that some clubs will focus almost entirely on the college ranks. "Anytime you limit the talent pool to one aspect of the draft, those teams limit their options," an AL scouting director said. "And if that’s the case, all the college guys will be swallowed up, going ahead of where they should be."

That would leave more high-ceiling prep prospects for teams willing to use their picks on them. Of course, then signability becomes a concern.

"There are a lot of inflated expectations from high school kids out there," a scouting director said. "A lot of those high school righthanders are going to fall to rounds they didn’t expect to be in."

High school righthanders, the riskiest of first-round gambles, will be affected more than any other group. Massachusetts high school righthander Jeff Allison is a lock to go in the first round, but after that only righthander Jay Sborz of Virginia ranks among the draft’s top 30 prospects.

"This could be the year you see the most players not signed from the second-third to sixth-seventh rounds," the scouting director said. "Or if teams choose not to draft them and they slide, it could make the players virtually unsignable."

Signability is the buzzword when it comes to Loewen, still under control to the Orioles, who took him fourth overall last June. Scouting directors and GMs don’t dare comment on him, for fear of tampering, but most expect him to be available.

If Loewen and fellow juco lefty Nick Markakis, a Reds draft-and-follow, both re-enter the draft, it will be the first time in draft history that two prominent draft-and-follows are regarded as first-round talents.

Their presence will bolster a solid, if not spectacular, top 10. Don’t let the scouting directors’ comments fool you. More encouraging is that talent should be the overriding factor when teams set up shop in their draft rooms and assemble their draft boards this year.

The Brewers would be happy to have Young, if Tampa Bay chooses Weeks, or Loewen, who Brewers GM Doug Melvin made a special scouting trip to see, just in case.

The Tigers would land Weeks, arguably the best talent on the board, and the Padres would draft Richmond righthander Tim Stauffer, whom they regard as the best pitcher in the draft. Harvey’s athleticism and five-tool potential fit with the Royals’ philosophy at No. 5.

Beyond that, it’s wide open.

"It’s as scuttled and unknown as any draft I can remember," an AL scouting director said. "It’s been that way from the beginning. Beyond the top five or six guys, it’s hard to get a handle on who should and who will go where."

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