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August 10, 2011
The Advantage of Signing Early
The signing deadline for the 2011 draft is less than a week away, yet 16 of this year's first 20 picks have yet to write their name on the dotted line. This isn't a cause for concern as much as it's the new way of doing things. While moving the deadline to two months after the draft has eliminated the year-long holdout gambit, it has led to more players waiting, as it has been proven over recent years that the players that wait are the ones who get paid. There are plenty of teams who have yet to start real negotiations with their top pick, and while they understand the waiting tactic, there is frustration with the delays in player development.
“I don't blame them at all for waiting,” said one American League executive. “The problem is that the players we have signed are out there not only playing, but getting adjusted to the rigors of professional baseball. All of that stuff is out of the way come next spring, leaving the late-signers behind.”
There are signed players taking advantage of more lengthy pro debuts; here is a team of 2011 draftees already making a mark.
Catcher: Neftali Rosario, Cubs. Rosario, a sixth-round pick out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, received a $150,000 bonus, one of the biggest in the round. The 18-year-old has lived up to expectations by showing excellent receiving skills and a plus arm. He’s also shown a surprisingly good bat, hitting .340/.375/.566 in limited action for the Cubs’ complex team in Arizona. He might not be ready for a full-season assignment in 2012, but this summer's performance gives him a better chance for one.
First Base: C.J. Cron, Angels. The second-highest signed position player, the 17th overall pick, crushed the Pioneer League to the tune of .308/.371/.629 with 13 home runs in 143 at-bats, but his first 34 professional games have proved his bat was likely ready for a full-season league. The Angels selected him knowing he'd require shoulder surgery, but when he's ready to begin the 2012 season, he could put up massive numbers in the friendly confines of the California League.
Second Base: Kolten Wong, Cardinals. Wong, the 22nd overall pick out of Hawaii, often gets incorrectly classified as a grinder due to his 5-foot-9 form and max-effort style, but he has tools, most notably the all-important hit tool. With a knack for consistently barreling balls and a good approach, Wong has had no issues adjusting to a full-season league, hitting .305/.368/.450 in 36 games for Low-A Quad Cities while showing impressive defensive fundamentals. His debut allows the Cardinals to push him to High-A next year, with the ability to reach Double-A at some point in the season to line up for a 2013 big-league debut.
Third Base: Dante Bichette, Yankees. Bichette signed quickly for a slightly above-slot bonus of $750,000, and he's been amongst the most impressive bats in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .329/.446/.507 in 37 games while showing excellent plate discipline and power potential. It’s debatable whether he’ll stick at the hot corner, but Bichette, the spitting image of his father, should have enough hitting skills to still be a prospect as a corner outfielder.
Shortstop: Joe Panik, Giants. Few thought Panik would end up in the first round, but San Francisco selected him 29th overall, and he signed quickly for the slot figure of just over $1.1 million. Panik, who is hitting an impressive .332/.389/.429 in the Northwest League, is more a player without weaknesses than one loaded with tools. However, he has good contact skills, an outstanding approach, and advanced defensive fundamentals; he should be ready for an advanced assignment in 2012. Panik just might be the answer to shortstop the Giants have been in search of for years.
Outfield: Tyler Collins, Tigers; Bobby Crocker, Athletics; Keenyn Walker, White Sox. Collins, a sixth-round pick who was one of the better junior college hitters in the draft, is a stock corner outfielder with plenty of juice in his bat, as evidenced by his five homers in 67 New York-Penn League at-bats. Crocker, a fourth-round pick out of Cal Poly, is a 230-pound physical beast with more tools than skills for now, but he's been a pleasant surprise in his debut, hitting .311/.352/.403 in his first 33 games. He's a classic high-risk/high-ceiling type, something the Oakland system needs more of. Walker was White Sox’ top pick in June, and the perfect example of the kind of player who can benefit from half a season of professional baseball, as he's quite raw. He's not performing well at Low-A Kannapolis, but the experience alone should make him more prepared for the level in 2011.
Starting Pitcher: Trevor Bauer, RHP, UCLA. The highest selected pick to be playing, Bauer signed surprisingly quickly for a third overall pick, agreeing to a major-league deal that including a $3.4 million bonus and the potential to earn more than double that. His early signing also makes him the best bet to be the first 2011 draftee to reach the big leagues. Bauer struck out nine batters over five innings in his first two outings for High-A Visalia, and is expected to move up to Double-A later in the week, with the opportunity to pitch his way into the Arizona bullpen in time for the playoff run.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .