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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.

The Changes

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.

The Untouchables

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.

Looking Ahead

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 ranyj@baseballprospectus.com.

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