Top 10 MLB Draft Holdouts Of All-Time
No matter how his baseball career plays out, San Diego high school lefthander Brady Aiken wrote his name into baseball draft history when he did not sign with the Astros, making him just the third No. 1 overall pick in draft history who has not signed. And with the news that the Major League Baseball Players Association will file a grievance on behalf of him and other players caught in the fallout from his not signing, we can be sure that this saga is far from over.
Where, though, does this holdout fit in the history of draft holdouts? We looked back over the whole of baseball draft history, which begins in 1965, to figure out the 10 holdouts that stood out the most. The three times the No. 1 pick did not sign make the list almost by default, just because of the value of the selection and the damage it does to an organization to lose that value.
But the real glory time for draft holdouts was the 1990s, when draft bonuses were becoming big enough that everyone started paying more attention to the draft, and Scott Boras was at the peak of his efforts to subvert the draft. Think what you like about Boras, but he has used every legal means at his disposal to follow through on his sincere belief that the draft unfairly stunts the market value of the most talented players. And he is usually successful.
Draft history also shows us that Major League Baseball and its teams have often done a poor job setting up cohesive draft rules, and then following those rules once they have been set up. MLB also has repeatedly tried to change the draft rules unilaterally, when decision after decision has reinforced that changes to draft rules must be negotiated with the Major League Baseball Players Association.
The most recent changes to the draft rules seemed to be the best yet in terms of establishing a comprehensive system that everyone understood, but still there are unintended consequences, as Aiken and the Astros found out. Here then are 10 more unintended consequences from almost 50 years of draft history:
10. White Sox/Danny Goodwin, c, Peoria (Ill.) Central HS, 1971
This earns a spot in the draft annals because Goodwin was the No. 1 pick, but aside from that it has little significance other than shining a light on just how different the draft and baseball were in 1971. The White Sox were one of just three teams to scout Goodwin in the spring before the 1971 draft, and they committed to drafting him before determining his bonus demands. That turned out to be a mistake.
“He’s way out of line with his bonus demands, so we had to back off for the time being,” Sox general manager Stu Holcomb said. “He wants more than $100,000 and he wants it now, not spread over a number of years.”
The White Sox were having financial problems at the time anyway, and they signed just 14 of their 34 draft picks that year. Among the unsigned were high schoolers Warren Cromartie (seventh round) and Barry Bonnell (eighth), who combined for more than 2,000 games in the big leagues. (You won’t be surprised to learn that the White Sox director of player personnel was none other than Roland Hemond.) Goodwin went on to be the No. 1 pick again in 1975 after attending Southern, and while he reached the major leagues, he never played a game at catcher and did not have a significant career.
9. Rockies/Matt Harrington, rhp, Palmdale (Calif.) HS, 2000
For industry-wide effects, the negotiations between Harrington and the Rockies didn’t do much aside from serving as a cautionary tale. But in terms of pure nastiness, this holdout would be hard to top. Baseball America rated Harrington as the best pitcher going into the 2000 draft, but because of his reported bonus demands he fell to the Rockies at seventh overall. We could rehash how those negotiations went, but just read Alan Schwarz’s story about it from the summer of 2001. Not only did Harrington not sign with the Rockies, but amazingly he went on to get drafted four more times and never signed. He had to settle for a long career in indy ball.
8. Twins/Tim Belcher, rhp, Mount Vernon Nazarene (Ohio), 1983
Belcher emerged from obscurity at a small college in Ohio, going into the spring of 1983 just hoping to be drafted, to become the No. 1 pick by June. Unfortunately for him that selection was made by the Twins, cheapest team in baseball at the time. Belcher wanted $135,000, and the Twins had never paid a bonus higher than $70,000.
“I talked to Minnesota’s farm director, George Brophy, the night before the draft. I told him what I wanted,” Belcher said. “What I was asking for wasn’t out of line with what other first-round picks were getting.”
The Twins opened at $90,000 and eventually moved to $120,500, but later cut their offer when Belcher didn’t pitch well for Team USA over the summer. Belcher, who was represented by Scott Boras in his first appearance on the draft stage, didn’t sign but did not return for his senior college season, so he was eligible to be picked in the secondary phase of the January 1984 draft. (Back then, there were two drafts, in January and June, with two phases, regular and secondary. But that’s a story for another time.)
The Yankees made Belcher the No. 1 selection in that draft and signed him from $125,000, only to lose him the next month when the Athletics exploited a hole in the free agent compensation rules of the time. Those rules allowed teams that lost free agents to draft players who were not on a protected list submitted by each club in mid-January. Belcher didn’t sign until Jan. 31, so he was not protected and the A’s grabbed him. The Yankees filed a protest but were unsuccessful. Belcher eventually was traded to the Dodgers, and he reached the big leagues with them in 1987. He went on to go 146-140, 4.16 in 14 years in the major leagues.
7. Dodgers/Luke Hochevar, rhp, Tennessee, 2005
Hochevar appeared to be following the standard operating procedure for Boras clients. He was regarded as one of the best pitchers available in the 2005 draft, but because of reported bonus demands he fell to the Dodgers in the supplemental first round (40th overall). Negotiations moved slowly, but they were moving, and by August the Dodgers had offered Hochevar $2.3 million. Then things took a bizarre turn over Labor Day weekend.
Hochevar attended a birthday party for Tennessee teammate Eli Iorg, who connected Hochevar with his agent, Matt Sosnick. Later that night Hochevar signed a document identifying Sosnick as his adviser, and Sosnick quickly worked out a $2.98 million deal with the Dodgers. After speaking with Boras, however, Hochevar reneged on the deal and returned to the Boras fold. Charges and counter-charges were leveled among the agents and against the Dodgers, but ultimately Hochevar did not sign with the Dodgers and remained with Boras. He did not return to Tennessee and instead pitched in the spring of 2006 for the independent Fort Worth Cats (where Harrington was a teammate).
The Royals made Hochevar the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, and he signed by August for a major league contract that included a $3.5 million bonus and a $5.25 million guarantee. He did not work out as the staff ace teams had once envisioned but did prove to be a valuable reliever last season for the Royals. He is out this year due to Tommy John surgery.
It was coincidence that new draft rules were approved just a couple of months later, though holdouts like Hochevar’s had certainly led to some of the changes. Most notable was the establishment of a uniform signing date (Aug. 15), but without a way to punish teams for exceeding bonus recommendations, the deadline ended up driving bonuses up rather than keeping them in check.
6. Astros/Brady Aiken, lhp, Cathedral Catholic HS, San Diego, 2014
Of course it’s impossible for us to know now what the significance of this holdout might end up being. Right now it looks to be more in the Matt Harrington/Rockies style because it represents a complete breakdown in the negotiation between team and player. But based on the progression of the grievance filed by the union on behalf of the players involved, however (other than Aiken, fifth-rounder Jacob Nix and 21st-rounder Mac Marshall saw their agreements fall by the wayside), it could become much more than that.
The other thing that could make this holdout more significant would be if it leads to a change in draft rules or procedures, such as the creation of a medical combine or at least a centralized repository of medical data that team and player agree on. Relations between the Astros and Aiken fell apart when an MRI exam revealed what the Astros called an abnormality in Aiken’s elbow. Aiken’s camp disputed the significance of the finding, but because this all took place after the draft there was little the two sides could do to bridge their disagreement.
5. Pirates/Pedro Alvarez, 3b, Vanderbilt, 2008
By this time baseball had implemented its signing deadline. But if there’s one common theme in draft history, it’s that baseball gets in trouble when it doesn’t follow its own draft rules. That was certainly the case here, as MLB stretched the signing deadline past midnight on Aug. 15 to allow at least three players, including Alvarez, to continue negotiating. Alvarez (represented by Boras) and the Pirates reportedly came to an agreement on a $6 million bonus.
But more than a week later, Alvarez still had not been introduced to the media, and by the end of August the Pirates announced that Alvarez had been placed on the restricted list. Pirates team president Frank Coonelly released a statement criticizing Alvarez and Boras for pursuing a “meritless legal claim” in an effort to void the deal, and the union filed a grievance on Alvarez’s behalf, arguing that the Pirates had signed him after the deadline.
Pressure from MLB prompted the Pirates to re-open negotiations with Alvarez, and he signed a major league deal at the end of September worth $6.355 million. Alvarez has gone on to become the premium power hitter the Pirates were looking for, while teams have never again pushed the signing deadline to the breaking point. Under the current system, in fact, most signings get wrapped up well before the deadline.
4. Mariners/Alex Rodriguez, ss, Westminster Christian HS, Miami, 1993
Rodriguez tried a similar approach in 1993, indicating that he wanted to go to the Dodgers at No. 2. The Mariners did not blink and took him at No. 1 overall. The Rodriguez camp communicated that he was looking for a $2.5 million bonus and a major league contract, and insisted that all negotiations go through his sister--Susy Dunand, who was acting as a conduit to Boras–and be communicated only via fax.
The Mariners’ initial offer was a $1 million bonus, or a $500,000 bonus and three-year major league contract with a guaranteed major league callup in September ’93, but they communicated it to Rodriguez himself over the phone.
“At this point, I don’t trust them,” Dunand said. “This is not a negotiation . . . They broke very simple ground rules. This is a negotiation and they’ll go to the weakest person, the player.”
The two sides had little contact until the end of August, when Rodriguez was scheduled to begin classes at Miami, which would have ended the process and meant he would wait three years to get drafted again. Mariners president Chuck Armstrong got involved and faxed a late offer, and hours before he was to begin classes, Rodriguez accepted a $1 million bonus with a major league contract that guaranteed him about $1.3 million.
“I’m glad the negotiations are over,” Rodriguez said at a press conference announcing the signing. “It’s been a long process. I never wanted this to be a bad thing, a long summer thing. One day I’ll get my market value, when I prove myself as an impact player. I just want to get started.”
But that was not the end. Two months later, the MLBPA filed a grievance at Boras’ behest, accusing the Mariners of circumventing Boras to deal with Rodriguez and his family directly, thus violating his right to representation. Gene Orza, then the associate general counsel for the union, told Baseball America that Rodriguez “was tricked into signing the contract.” Armstrong said, “It is a matter of ethics, and I am deeply upset that anyone would question my ethics.”
Complicating the case was Rodriguez’s rapid ascent to the major leagues. He reached Seattle by July 1994, before the grievance had been resolved. While hearings were scheduled, they were repeatedly postponed and the grievance was eventually dropped without ever being heard by an arbitrator.
3. Twins and Mariners/Jason Varitek, c, Georgia Tech, 1993-95
While Rodriguez did not seem to have the stomach to push his draft holdout into uncharted territory, Varitek clearly did. One of the top college players in the 1993 draft, Varitek fell to the 21st overall pick because teams realized he would be a tough sign. The Twins took him and never moved much off their $450,000 bonus offer, so Varitek went back to Georgia Tech for his senior season.
Normally college seniors come cheap because they have no leverage in signing negotiations, but Boras and Varitek had a different plan. Varitek, who was BA’s 1994 College Player of the Year and arguably the best college catcher ever, went back into the draft and went 14th overall to the Mariners. They offered around $400,000, while Varitek sought about $800,000.
The holdout had the requisite hard feelings. Varitek said, “It’s a matter of wanting to be treated fairly. It’s to the point where they’re taking advantage of my position, saying I should get half of what I’m worth.” To his point, the other first-rounders in the 1994 draft signed for bonuses averaging almost $800,000.
The Mariners, on the other hand, didn’t exactly hide their enmity for Boras. “We’re doing this because they always put the gun to our heads on the high school kids,” one team official said. “It’s a get-even-type situation.”
The Mariners retained Varitek’s rights until a week before the 1995 draft, and Varitek and Boras argued that after that, he would become a free agent. Major League Baseball asserted that he would go back into the draft pool. Varitek made the situation even murkier by signing a contract with the independent St. Paul Saints, which he argued made him a professional and no longer subject to the “amateur” draft. MLB ruled otherwise, and the case was headed to arbitration when Varitek finally agreed to a deal with the Mariners in April 1995 for a $650,000 bonus.
“They came up in their offer to the point where I thought it was fair,” Varitek said. “It wasn’t about the money. It was about principle.” Mariners scouting director Roger Jongewaard said, “I think we held the line pretty well . . . We’re not gloating. We’re happy. Isn’t that the secret to the sale, that everyone thinks they came out OK?”
2. The Loophole Gang, 1996
Scott Boras had spent the 1990s looking for weaknesses in baseball’s draft rules. In 1996, he found a back door that was simply unlocked.
Baseball’s draft rules at the time stipulated that teams had to make a written contract offer to all picks within 15 days of the draft. The rule had been in place since 1990, but most teams were not aware of it, and players and agents had never made an issue of it. But in 1996, Florida high school lefthander Bobby Seay, his father and his attorney--Boras--challenged it. They said Seay had not received a written offer from the White Sox, who made him the 12th overall pick, and should become a free agent. Before a hearing could be held, the White Sox voluntarily relinquished their rights to Seay on Aug. 15, 1996, setting the precedent for others to follow.
Baseball America estimated that at most only half of the 30 teams had followed the rule properly with their first-round picks, but just seven players ultimately pursued free agency. Of those, three--Wichita State righthander Braden Looper (No. 3 overall, Cardinals), Maryland lefthander Eric Milton (No. 20, Yankees) and Stanford catcher A.J. Hinch (third round, Athletics)--signed with the teams that drafted them before MLB made a decision on their status.
On Sept. 24, MLB ruled that three more players in addition to Seay--San Diego State first baseman Travis Lee (No. 2, Twins), Texas high school righthander John Patterson (No. 5, Expos) and Pennsylvania high school righthander Matt White (No. 7, Giants)--were free to sign with any team, the first U.S. players ever to gain free agency in the summer in which they were drafted. The players also happened to be the best position player in the draft (Lee) and the top three high school pitchers.
The two expansion teams ended up signing two free agents each for unprecedented sums. The Devil Rays signed White for a $10.2 million bonus and Seay for $3 million, while the Diamondbacks signed Lee for $10 million and Patterson for $6.075 million.
Baseball quickly closed the loophole, but the sums spent that year got the attention of agents and teams, and inevitably drove up signing bonuses, no matter how much teams argued that it was a one-year aberration. The money also generated more attention for the draft from the casual fan--it was still a mostly closed proceeding at this point--and accelerated the move toward more formal rules regarding bonuses and signing.
1. Phillies/J.D. Drew, of, Florida State, 1997
In the wake of the 1996 draft, Drew made no bones about his desire to get a $10 million bonus heading into the 1997 draft. In the midst of the only 30-30 season in college baseball history, he told teams not to draft him unless they were prepared to pay him that much. The Phillies had no such intention but took him at No. 2 overall anyway.
The Phillies never came close to signing Drew, but that was almost secondary to the larger issues at hand. Drew and Boras argued that there were teams willing to give him the money he wanted and that the draft system violated his rights by allowing him to negotiate with only one team.
“Our point is that J.D. would be signed and playing right now if he had been drafted by another team,” Boras said. “There definitely were offers tendered to us by other teams. The true value of amateur players is now evident. It’s very different this year. The draft once was seen as an evaluation structure. Now it’s exposed as a barrier for keeping the premium talents from getting their true worth.”
The union filed two grievances on Drew’s behalf to try to make him a free agent. The first said the Phillies sent his contract to his parents’ home in Hahira, Ga., and not his address in Tallahassee, Fla., and thus failed to reach him within the prescribed 15 days after his selection. An arbitrator ruled in favor of the Phillies.
The second was more significant, charging that MLB had improperly changed its rules when it did so unilaterally before the 1997 draft. MLB changed its draft rules in the spring of 1997 (in the wake of Varitek signing with an independent team and in anticipation of Drew’s challenge) to redefine many terms like “amateur,” “minor league” and “professional” to make it clear that the draft rules applied to independent league players as well as high school and college players. This is when the stilted label “First-Year Player Draft” came into being.
Drew and Boras argued that MLB couldn’t change those rules without the union’s consent, and that because Drew had played for the independent St. Paul Saints in the summer of 1997, if he did not sign with the Phillies when their negotiating window closed (in May 1998) that he should become a free agent because he was a professional and no longer subject to the amateur draft.
Arbitrator Dana Eischen ruled in May 1998 that MLB had violated the Basic Agreement by making the rules change without the approval of the Players Association, but said he didn’t have jurisdiction to rule on Drew’s status because he was not a member of the union. That decision was up to MLB’s executive council, which not surprisingly ruled that Drew remained subject to the draft.
Drew went back into the 1998 draft, where he was selected by the Cardinals fifth overall. He signed relatively quickly, agreeing to a major league contract worth a guaranteed $6.875 million, with the total value topping out at $8.5 million. He reached St. Louis later that year and ended up playing 14 years in the big leagues, batting .278/.384/.489 in 5,173 career at-bats.
This year represented the end of the 1990s era efforts to subvert the draft through the grievance process, and it very clearly brought on the slotting system that first showed up informally in 2000 and now is an official (mutually bargained) part of draft rules, the establishment of limited signing budgets and a signing deadline. It also made common agents using a player’s bonus demands to exert control over where he was drafted. Drew had attempted to do this unsuccessfully, but in the following years many players were able to drive themselves to particular teams based on what they said they would accept as a bonus.