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Costly Draft Could Leave Some Teams Cold

June 01, 1997

The question confronting major league clubs as they prepare for Tuesday's amateur draft is not really whom to select, but what will it cost.

"We've never shied away from hard signs, but we're taking a harder look than ever because signability is more of a factor than ever," Dodger Executive Vice President Fred Claire said, echoing widespread sentiment.

The stakes in this annual poker game soared last summer when four players selected in the first round became free agents because the clubs that drafted them failed to make a contract offer within 15 days, as required.

The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays won the ensuing bidding war for all four, with San Diego State first baseman Travis Lee receiving a $10-million signing bonus from the Diamondbacks and high school pitcher Matt White getting $10.2 million from the Devil Rays.

Those signings far outdistanced the $2-million signing bonus Clemson pitcher Kris Benson received from the Pittsburgh Pirates as the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, the record until those four free agents obliterated it.

How will the Lee and White signings affect the 1997 draft?

The clubs are prepared to argue that the Benson bonus should be the only yardstick.

They contend that the Lee and White signings were aberrations caused by the technical violation that created their free agency and the fact that the two expansion teams were devoid of player payrolls and saw a chance to stock their system with premium prospects.

Many agents and players, however, will rebut that, saying those $10-million signings can't be ignored.

"Those signings demonstrated the value of premium young players in a properly free market, and it's wishful thinking on the part of the clubs to attempt to distinguish them from other signings," agent Jeff Moorad, Lee's advisor, said.

"The reality is that the marketplace has been altered forever."

Time will tell, but Claire acknowledged that Tuesday's draft could set off a series of intense signing battles.

"If it's anything but a long summer for general managers, scouting directors, players and agents, I'll be shocked," he said.

"We're dealing with the greatest unknown in the history of the draft, and we can't run from the fact there's never been more expectation on the part of players and their representatives.

"Ultimately, however, it's the clubs that will decide if the [Lee and White signings] should be a factor or not."

If that suggests a hard-line stance by management, some players and agents might be willing to consider legal action.

There's more to it than Lee and White.

How can the New York Yankees give $12.8 million to Hideki Irabu or the Devil Rays give $7 million to Rolando Arrojo, the former Cuban ace, without that also affecting the signings of drafted amateurs, agents ask.

Have Irabu and Arrojo proved they can pitch in the big leagues?

Signability--a buzz word now--is a major factor for the Detroit Tigers, who have the first pick Tuesday as a result of their 1996 record, the worst in baseball.

The Tigers, sources say, consider Florida State outfielder J.D. Drew the most attractive player in the draft, but Drew is being advised by Scott Boras, whose pattern of aggressive and often contentious negotiations tends to scare off many clubs and who probably will seek a Lee-like bonus.

"There's only a few players in any draft with the type talent to command that kind of money, and J.D. is one of them," Boras said.

"He's hit more home runs [in college] than Lee, has a better arm and plays a premium position that Lee doesn't. It's up to J.D., but I know he wants his true market value."

Which means that Drew will probably fall to the Philadelphia Phillies, who draft second and are apparently willing to pay the price.

The Tigers, intent on using Benson's $2 million as a benchmark, are expected to select Rice relief pitcher Matt Anderson over Dearborn, Mich., high school pitcher Ryan Anderson.

The latter is a 6-foot-10 Randy Johnson clone who lives in the extended shadows of Tiger Stadium.

As popular as the selection of Ryan Anderson would be in Detroit, Matt Anderson is considered capable of becoming the Tiger closer within a year or two, or as General Manager Randy Smith said:

"It's essential to have a closer but difficult to develop one. We think he has the best arm in the country and fits a need."

The unrelated Andersons are both advised by Randy and Alan Hendricks.

"I do think there will be some exceptions for the premier players, but I'm not sure [those bonuses] will go into double digits," Alan Hendricks said of the $10-million possibility.

The Angels draft third and are expected to select UCLA third baseman Troy Glaus. The San Francisco Giants, drafting fourth, are considering either Seton Hall pitcher Jason Grilli or Rice first baseman Lance Berkman. The Toronto Blue Jays, drafting fifth, are expected to pick Darnell McDonald, a high school outfielder from Colorado.

The Dodgers draft 25th, making it difficult to predict, but they are known to be high on shortstop Cesar Crespo of Notre Dame High in Puerto Rico, providing Alex Cora with competition as shortstop of the future.

Signing bonuses have risen dramatically in the last 10 years--from Ken Griffey Jr.'s $169,000 in 1987 to Benson's $2 million.

The recent labor agreement opened the door to discussions this summer on possible revisions in the draft. Owners favor a global draft curtailing the large bonuses that clubs like the Yankees are paying foreign players or a cap of about $8 million that each team could spend on its total player development operation.

"The same clubs that can't afford to compete for free agents are now being priced out of player development," Oakland Athletic General Manager Sandy Alderson said.

"It's no longer a viable alternative for some clubs, and that's a real concern."

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