Teams have until midnight Saturday to sign their draft picks without losing them to college. (College seniors are the exception; they can sign up until one week prior to the 2009 draft. Mariners’ first round pick Joshua Fields is the most notable unsigned college senior.) Just hours before the deadline, ten of the thirty first-round draft picks still have not signed. Among them are Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick to the Pirates, Eric Hosmer, the third overall pick to the Royals and Brian Matusz, the fourth overall pick to the Orioles.
This stalemate is not unprecedented. Last year, nine first round picks remained unsigned with one day left before the signing deadline. This protracted game of chicken is the result of MLB policies that browbeat teams into signing players for less than they are worth. Fed up with high signing bonuses in the amateur draft, Major League Baseball began publishing a list of recommended signing bonuses for each pick in the first five rounds in 2006. If a team wants to sign a player for more than the recommended value, its owner must endure a tongue lashing from the Commissioner’s office. Fifteen first-round picks, mostly in the second half of the first round, have signed for the recommended bonus or less. While most draft picks sign a standard minor league contract with an upfront signing bonus, some teams have signed draftees to major league deals. The team can defer some of the signing bonus to the end of the contract, but signing a player to a big league contract increases the annual salary. Players usually will accept a lesser signing bonus in a major league contract than he would a minor league deal, which also make them more palatable for the Commissioner’s office.
The ten unsigned first rounders figure to receive bonuses well above slot value. Alvarez, Hosmer, Allan Dykstra and Gerrit Cole are represented by Scott Boras, who is known to drive a hard bargain for his clients. Alvarez, Matusz, the Giants’ Buster Posey, the Reds’ Yonder Alonso and the Nationals’ Aaron Crow are rumored to be seeking major league contracts. Justin Smoak (Texas) and Joshua Fields (Mariners) are expected to sign minor league contracts with above slot bonuses, while Eric Hosmer (Royals) and Gerrit Cole (Yankees) have the option of attending Pac-10 schools; Hosmer is committed to Arizona State and Cole to UCLA. The only remaining first rounder who will probably sign for the recommended bonus or less is Dykstra (Padres). Dykstra agreed to a minor league contract with a $1.4 million bonus, but his physical revealed a hip condition with long-term implications and reneged on the deal. If he signs later today, it will be at a discount.
Buckle your seat belts. It will be a fast final hours.