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July 17, 2009

Future Shock

Signing Situations

by Kevin Goldstein

The signing period for the 2009 draft is, as expected, a complete mess. As of today, teams have just one month remaining to sign their 2009 draft picks, yet 20 of 32 first-round picks remain unsigned, including 13 of the first 16 selections. Of the 12 who have signed, half agreed to terms below Major League Baseball's recommended slot, while only one, Houston shortstop Jiovanni Mier, got an above-slot deal, but that was only approximately $25,000 above MLB's recommendation.

I was planning to write an article about the state of negotiations, with rumors about where the negotiations stand with some of the top picks, but as it turns out, it is almost as if there's nothing to write. In recent days, I've contacted six teams with unsigned selections in the top half of the first round. Here's are team official's reactions to the question, "Any update on [insert selection here]?"

"No."
"Haven't even talked to them."
"Nothing to report."
"No."
"What do you think?"
"Ask me on August 16."

This is really nothing new, although the ten percent reductions in slot this year are making things move even more slowly than is normally the case. For top three picks Stephen Strasburg (Nationals), Dustin Ackley (Mariners), and Donavan Tate (Padres), nothing more than a last-minute deal was expected, but for picks that are seemingly obvious slot selections, the lack of talks is a bit frustrating. "I can understand a lot of these guys sitting around," exclaimed one team official, "but if you are a guy like Mike Minor or Mike Leake, what the hell are you waiting for?"

What they might be waiting for is simply a deal that matches last year's slot, as opposed to the ten percent reductions, which in the cases of Minor and Leake are differences approaching $250,000, not exactly a trivial sum of money. Still it's enough to create either a situation with there is a stalemate between the team and the player, or in many cases, there may already be a deal in place, but Major League Baseball will not recognize it until late in the signing period, for fear of a domino effect of over-slot bonuses, which of course will happen anyway.

Some have called this the "Jason Heyward effect," referring to the Braves' first-round pick in 2007, also a year in which the slots were reduced by ten percent. The Braves and Heyward agreed early to a deal for the previous year's slot, but could not announce the signing until the deadline approached. "It's monumentally stupid," said one front-office official. "Everybody talks to each other, everybody knows who is going to sign for what, all this does is hinder a kid's development."

The good news (for some), is that we may be seeing the end of an era. While the draft and the overall player procurement system has always been the red-headed stepchild when it comes to baseball's Collective Bargaining Agreement, that might no longer be the case, and this year's free-agency season finally had the player's side of things sitting up to take notice.

Said one exec, "Look, Bobby Abreu can't find a job and then signs for $5 million. While 16-year-old are getting signed off sandlots in the Dominican for $3 and $4 million? That's the kind of thing that's going to get the union going," he added, while predicting than during the next bargaining session, once the players figure out what they want, them giving into financially harnessing the signing system for both draftees and international players will be what they use for leverage.

There are also some indications that both sides might not be willing to wait for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, as multiple sources have indicated that the reason for Bryce Harper's early entry into college in order to be eligible for the 2010 draft revolves as much around his desire to sign within a system with no limits, rather than being subject a more controlled draft that could be in place sometime down the road.

Beyond the Big Three: Five To Watch

Beyond Strasburg assuredly demolishing all previous draft records, and Ackley and Tate likely ending up around last year's records of just over six million, there's still plenty of drama to spread around the remainder of the first round. Here's eight top picks that offer the most intrigue.

Zach Wheeler, RHP, Giants (sixth overall): Wheeler was in the mix for Baltimore with the fifth pick, but he wasn't willing to take the below-slot $2.422 million bonus that Hobgood signed for. If that's the case, it's a good guess that he won't take the recommended slot money at six either, as that's nearly $100,000 less. If anything, he's the first of the Heyward effect players, and will likely sign for $2.5-2.6 million.

Jacob Turner, RHP, Tigers (ninth overall): Scott Boras' top high school pitcher this year is a sure bet to sign, as Detroit knew what they were getting into with the selection, and they've been down this road before (and relatively recently) with Rick Porcello. The term "Porcello money" was thrown around liberally by a number of prep arms leading up to the draft, and while nobody is going to get that kind of deal, Turner could get close to $5 million.

Tyler Matzek, LHP, Rockies (11th overall): Matzek remains the player most likely to remain unsigned, but that doesn't mean it's anything less than a 50/50 proposition. Both Matzek and his agency, Legacy Sports, seemed surprised by the selection, and they've given no indications that they'll budge from their pre-draft requests for a "precedent-setting deal." Sometimes things change when a $5 million check is put in front of a teenager, and sometimes they don't.

Aaron Crow, RHP, Royals (12th overall): This one is still a bit of a mystery, although many insiders believe that the Royals and Crow agreed to the structure of a deal before he was selected. Still, the slot for this pick is less than half of the $3.5 million Crow turned down from the Nationals last year. He'll almost certainly get less than that this time around.

Grant Green, SS, Athletics (13th overall): The intrigue here is that he's a Boras client, but not all teams see him as an elite-level talent who fell, as many had him right around here on their boards. It will certainly require a figure significantly over the recommended slot to get him to sign, but just how much remains a bit of a mystery.

Matt Purke, LHP, Rangers (14th overall): Another of the pricey prep arms looking for Verlander money, he'll likely get what all of them get offered, which is somewhere between $4-5 million.

Shelby Miller, RHP, Cardinals (19th overall): See Purke, Matt. The real question among the foursome of Matzek, Miller, Purke, and Turner is which one will be the first to sign, thus setting the market rate. Miller might be the best bet.

Kyle Gibson, RHP, Twins (22nd overall): Gibson's injury makes this negotiation impossible to figure out. The slot for this selection is just under $1.3 million, but prior to the forearm issue's arising, he was in line for a slot nearly double that. The best guess is that he gets something in the middle, but the word "guess" is the key to the first part of that phrase.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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