Hard To Predict

Deadline deal grievance could go either way

CHICAGO—As with any good argument, there are two sides to the Players Association's grievance that the commissioner's office unilaterally extended the signing deadline past midnight on Aug. 15, allowing the Pirates and No. 2 overall pick Pedro Alvarez to agree on a $6 million deal.

First there are the Pirates, who have gone on the offensive. They had Major League Baseball place Alvarez on the restricted list after he declined to sign his contract. Team president Frank Coonelly issued a pointed six-paragraph statement that carefully placed all of the blame at the feet of Alvarez's agent, Scott Boras.

Though Boras never has been afraid to ramp up the rhetoric, he has said little publicly.

The two parties agree on little. The Pirates maintain the deal was consummated "in a timely fashion," though Coonelly's statement conspicuously fails to mention what time it occurred. They portray the entire matter as "a meritless legal claim" in an attempt by Boras to renegotiate a better deal.

It's true that Boras has a history of looking for loopholes to exploit (see Page 10). But that doesn't automatically mean this grievance lacks merit.

The union will argue the Pirates banked on having extra time to negotiate, thanks to a unilateral decision to override a rule that was collectively bargained. Coonelly worked as an MLB senior vice president before joining the Pirates in September 2007, and his primary responsibilities included overseeing the signing process and trying to keep bonuses in check.

If the Pirates were granted a short extension to sign Alvarez, leverage shifted in their favor once the clock struck midnight. The argument is that by granting the extension without notifying the union, MLB put Alvarez in a position where he would have to rely on the club to get any deal approved.

Major Upheaval Unlikely

The rule is clearly defined and makes no mention of possible extensions, though Julio Borbon (another Boras client) reached a deal with the Rangers after the deadline in 2007, the first year it was in effect. There was no acrimony with that signing, however, as the delay was the result of a reporting issue and the union was properly notified.

With the Alvarez deal, it should be easy enough to verify the timing of any e-mails or faxes sent to the commissioner's office, as well as any records of phone calls. But even if arbitrator Shyam Das rules the agreement was reached after an improper extension of time, the most obvious solution—making Alvarez subject to the deadline like other draftees—probably won't become reality.

That or any other significant remedy is unlikely, given the precedent of a 1997 grievance filed on behalf of J.D. Drew (yet another Boras client), which claimed he shouldn't have to re-enter the draft after signing with an independent league team. Though the arbitrator determined MLB had invalidly changed the applicable rule, he also said he couldn't rule on Drew's individual status because he wasn't a member of the union.

Alvarez isn't part of the union, either. Unless Das finds gross misconduct or a conspiracy, which would be difficult to prove, Alvarez likely faces two choices. He can sign for the second-highest up-front bonus in draft history or wait on the restricted list.

The grievance will matter more to future players than it will to Alvarez. The sanctity of the deadline will be reinforced, but Alvarez has little chance of gaining free agency or a new window to negotiate.

Mandated Slotting Ahead?

In the end, this controversy could be most notable as another step that leads to formal draft slotting in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. After eight drafts of recommending slots and trying to arm-twist owners into complying, MLB took a different approach in 2008.

The commissioner's office realized its efforts to rig the market were driving high-priced talent to a select few teams. So before this year's draft, MLB encouraged clubs to worry more about ability than signability.

As a result, draft spending rose to an estimated $175 million, which would be a record, including an average of $2.48 million per first-round pick, which set a new standard. All but four clubs signed at least one player for more than slot money.

MLB's helplessness, rising bonuses and now this grievance are making slotting a high priority for the owners once the current CBA expires in December 2011. The union always has been adamant that it won't accept a salary cap on major league payrolls, and is philosophically opposed to putting a ceiling on the earning power of draftees. But if the owners are determined to have slotting and are willing to give up something significant in exchange, the union could sign off on it.