June 8, 2000
The Amateur Draft
A Shot Across the Bow
If major league baseball is shut down for the 2002 season as the owners wage their fiercest war ever to break the Players Association and turn back 30 years of advances, this Monday's First-Year Player Draft will be regarded as one of the events that laid the foundation for the owners' assault.
Riding the wave of his complete anhilation of the umpires' union, Sandy Alderson finally has the owners' rapt attention. When he held a negotiating seminar prior to the draft, to remind the owners of the leverage they hold in dealing with draft picks, the Lords were listening. And the circumstances of the 2000 draft provided the perfect opportunity to change their tactics.
And they did. The Marlins, with no clear-cut #1 player to take, let financial sensibilities guide their selection, agreeing to a pre-draft deal with high-school first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez signed on draft day for $3 million, a 24% drop from the $3.96 million contract last year's #1 pick, Tampa Bay's Josh Hamilton, received. No #1 pick had signed for less money than the previous year's top selection since Phil Nevin signed in 1992 for less than Brien Taylor received in 1991.
The Marlins' move was widely expected. What was unexpected was that the Twins, who had been matched up with high-school right-hander Matt Harrington before the draft, had second thoughts right beforehand. Harrington was the most sought-after player in the draft, but he had made it clear that he wanted to become the best-compensated player as well, and refused to budge when the Twins talked to him Sunday night. The Twins, whose recent first-round nightmares include Travis Lee (escaped on a loophole) and Jason Varitek (refused to sign, returned to college), took college right-hander Adam Johnson instead. Johnson was a mid-first-rounder on talent, but was a popular fallback position for several teams at the top of the draft because he was considered close to the majors and not particularly pricey.
Harrington fell all the way to seventh before the Rockies grabbed him. The Cubs, the only team with deep pockets drafting in the top five, passed on Harrington and took high-school shortstop Luis Montanez, who is reported to have agreed to pre-draft terms of around $2.75 million. The Royals, who were the most difficult team to read at the top of the draft, talked to a dozen potential draft picks and selected the one that agreed to their offer: Mike Stodolka, a high-school southpaw from California, who has already signed for a reported $2.5 million.
The Blue Jays, for the second straight year, took a Puerto Rican outfielder with second-round ability but virtually no draft leverage with their first pick, and have already inked him to a deal. But the biggest reach of the first round, strangely enough, was the Yankees' selection of University of Michigan catcher David Parrish (son of Lance). Parrish wasn't even considered one of the five best catchers in the draft by most teams, and was expected to go around the fifth round.
But the draft was not as remarkable for the players who were drafted for their signability as much as for the players who weren't drafted because of their perceived demands. In particular, clients of Scott Boras got killed.
David Espinosa, a high-school shortstop who was neck-and-neck with Montanez in terms of overall ability, slid even further than expected, all the way to the Reds at 23. The Reds also took Dane Sardinha, considered the best college catcher in the draft, early in the second round, about 30 picks later than expected. The pick after Sardinha was Jason Young, a right-hander from Stanford who was also expected to go in the first round. Cal third baseman Xavier Nady, who was talked about as a possible #1 overall pick before the season, went in the middle of the second round to the Padres. Boras clients all.
Was this collusion? Boras will want to frame it that way, but he'd have a hell of a time convincing an arbitrator. The nature of this draft was that even the best talents had question marks. Many teams think Espinosa won't be able to handle shortstop as a pro. There are serious questions about Sardinha's ability to hit with wood bats. There are concerns that Young was overworked at Stanford, and Nady had a disappointing junior season and in which he lost his mobility at third base. Sensibly enough, teams decided against spending a top pick on a player about whom they had questions about both ability and signability.
The owners still have far to go before they win this battle, but they've done a good job of deploying their forces. In previous years, the first five or six draft picks typically set the pay scale for the rest of the first round, which has led to some drawn-out summers in years when the top picks held out for premium money. But with two of the first four picks already signed, and the other two likely to agree to terms by Flag Day, the writing is on the wall. Draftees--and their agents--who can read it will likely fall into line quickly.
Not everyone will go down meekly. Harrington will probably want even more money now that he's doomed to pitch in Coors Field. One or two first-rounders will probably return to school, but then, that happens every year.
By the time all precincts report, the owners will have won. Not a big victory, mind you; it will be a victory only in relation to all the battles the owners have lost in the draft since Todd Van Poppel and Brien Taylor changed the industry. Expect overall draft bonuses to drop around 10% from last season, and expect the emboldened owners to become even more confident in their chances to break the union in two years.
Don't scoff. Turning points in history usually occur at exactly the moment that the momentum building up to that point appears unstoppable. In hindsight, it is easy to pinpoint the summer of 1942 as the moment when the Axis powers started to fade and Allied forces began to win World War II. But for those living in the moment, as the Germans overran the Russian steppes and the Japanese planted their flag in the Philippines, that was precisely the moment when things looked their bleakest.
The history of labor negotiations in baseball has been utterly one-sided since the players coalesced under Marvin Miller in the late 1960s, and it is so tempting to assume that, once again, the owners will bungle their position and turn against each other. But if this draft is any indication, teams are finally learning to account for how their decisions will affect the industry as a whole. Which is a bad sign for the players.
And, because the union isn't going to go down without a fight--a very, very long fight--it's a terrible sign for the fans.
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.