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Teams, draft choices play 'a game of chicken'

A third of first-round baseball picks, including three local prep stars, have yet to sign, and deadline is tonight.

August 15, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

With the clock ticking toward tonight's midnight EDT signing deadline, a third of the first-round picks in baseball's June draft have yet to reach agreement with the clubs that selected them, setting up a high-stakes impasse that could have far-reaching implications on both sides.

In an effort to hold the line on escalating bonuses paid to top draft picks, the commissioner's office has strongly urged teams to trim offers from 2006 by 10% for each slot in the draft -- figures known as "slot money" -- while instituting an Aug. 15 deadline for the clubs and their draft picks to reach agreement.

Any player not signed by 11:59 EDT tonight is required to return to the draft, costing the player a year of professional baseball and costing the teams their first-round draft pick, although teams that don't sign their first-round picks this year will receive an additional first-round selection next June.

"It's basically a game of chicken," said one source with knowledge of several negotiations. "Who's going to cave in first?"

None of the first three picks -- Vanderbilt left-hander David Price and Southern California high school infielders Mike Moustakas of Chatsworth and Josh Vitters of Cypress -- have agreed to terms and all are reportedly far apart in talks with the clubs that selected them. And only four of the top 12 picks had signed as of late Tuesday.

The Detroit Tigers may have taken steps toward breaking that logjam Tuesday when they reached terms on a four-year, $7.28-million contract with New Jersey prep pitcher Rick Porcello, a record deal for a high school player signing with the team that drafted him. The contract includes a $3.5-million bonus, the richest in this year's draft and more than twice the slot money recommended for the 27th pick of the first round.

That could lead to a spate of signings today, because many front offices reportedly have been waiting for one team to break ranks and ignore the commissioner's guidelines, giving them cover to do the same. Half the unsigned top 12 picks, including Chatsworth High's Matt Dominguez, are believed to be seeking bonuses equal to or above what their slots were worth last year.

In the case of Dominguez, taken by the Florida Marlins with the 12th pick, that would mean $1.8 million, while the Marlins are said to be offering $1.62 million, in line with the commissioner's recommendation. Outfielder Jason Heyward, taken by the Braves two spots behind Dominguez, has already signed for 2006 money, agreeing to a $1.7-million bonus.

"I've just been sitting around all summer waiting to get this done," said Dominguez, who had signed with Cal State Fullerton. "I guess it's just business, but I'd like to get it done and get on to playing."

Of the 21 first-round picks signed as of Tuesday, only five -- Heyward, Porcello, right-hander Blake Beavan, taken by the Texas Rangers with the 17th pick, right-hander Tim Alderson, taken by the Giants with the 22nd pick, and outfielder Wendell Fairley, taken by the Giants at No. 29 -- have signed for more than MLB's recommended bonus amount, with some taking significantly less.

That's unlikely to happen to the top picks, however.

Bo McKinnis, the agent for Price, Baseball America's college player of the year, reportedly has been asking for a major league deal in the $8-million range with a bonus richer than 2006's top figure, the $3.55 million the Tigers paid to North Carolina left-hander Andrew Miller, the seventh overall pick.

The most unlikely first-round pick to sign is Moustakas, the second pick. He is represented by Scott Boras, who is also Porcello's agent, and Tuesday's deal with the Tigers is likely to embolden the agent, with some reports suggesting his asking price tops $7 million, more than double the slot money the commissioner has recommended.

It's doubtful Royals owner David Glass, a close ally of Bud Selig, would make such a spectacular break with his mandate. Moustakas has signed with USC, but there are rumors he could wind up at a junior college instead, a move that would allow him to enter the draft next year rather than waiting until after his junior season, as he would if he entered a four-year school.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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