Cost, scope of Pirates' draft unprecedented
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For something that seemed so complicated, it ultimately took just two words on each side for the Pirates and first-round draft pick Pedro Alvarez to come together.
Scott Boras, Alvarez's agent, phoned general manager Neal Huntington at 11:55 p.m., five minutes before the Friday midnight deadline. They hastily exchanged a couple of dollar figures, but the team held firm with its offer of a $6 million bonus and minor league contract. Boras' asking price for months had been a major league contract worth $9.5 million but, seeing the clock tick in his California office, he relayed the Pirates' offer to Alvarez seated nearby.
Some with the team called it give-and-take. Others called it a staredown.
Back in the Alvarez family's Manhattan apartment, his closest kin gathered near a phone, waiting for a ring.
"It was pretty much a nervous time," recalled Yolayna Alvarez, his sister.
Pedro Alvarez approved of the offer, but he needed to speak it into the conference call to make it binding. A second call went to the Pirates, as did this ...
"I accept," Alvarez said.
No more than a moment passed before Huntington, still holding the phone, turned and shouted, "Send it!"
That order went to an administrative assistant who had every aspect of the contract drawn up, except the dollar figure, on an email to be sent to Major League Baseball headquarters. The $6 million was typed onto the screen, and off it went.
"One of the best moments I've had as a professional," Huntington said.
With that, the Pirates not only completed a transaction that could help shape their fortunes for years to come, but also put the glowing finishing touch on a draft unlike any other in franchise history, in terms of cost and scope.
"I've been in this business a long time," scouting director Greg Smith said yesterday, "and I've never seen a draft like the one we just had."
If that sounds strong, listen to this from owner Bob Nutting: "It's the single best management team in all of baseball, maybe in all of sports. And everyone, including Greg and his staff, showed that with what they just accomplished."
Nutting, Huntington, Smith and team president Frank Coonelly took turns being interviewed at a PNC Park news conference yesterday -- Alvarez was flying from California to New York -- and all four looked as satisfied as at any point in their tenures with the Pirates.
"Even if Alvarez hadn't accepted our offer, the way the process was conducted was what was important," Nutting said. "It shows the plan that was in place, the work that went into it."
Start with the cost ...
The Pirates spent a team-record $9,780,500 in signing 32 of 50 picks, five more than last year. That total included Alvarez's $6 million -- divided in payments of $3 million this year and next -- but not extras such as vouchers for college education. The total, as per MLB guidelines for computation, ranked second only to the Kansas City Royals. Baseball America reported that the Boston Red Sox will exceed $10 million in bonuses, which would be a record for any team, but there was no independent confirmation.
The high in 2007 was the $8,035,500 of the New York Yankees.
Or, through another prism, consider that the Pirates added all these players for less than the $10 million they paid pitcher Matt Morris for his early retirement this summer.
"I've said from the very beginning that it's not going to be about how many dollars we spend," Nutting said. "It's how we spend them."
The Pirates could have spent more, too: Money was available for Huntington to sign second-round pitcher Tanner Scheppers had Scheppers accepted less than his slotted recommendation of $809,000, but he never budged after talks essentially fizzled Wednesday. The team also had spent much of Wednesday and Thursday trying to lure 22nd-rounder Patrick Palmeiro, a high school third baseman in Texas and son of Rafael Palmeiro, but the father was determined to send his son to college.
Next, look at the scope ...
An infusion of three additional scouts, a restructuring of territories, a priority on overlap to get more eyes on the best players, as well as a new database to track it all, resulted in what Huntington called "a machine."
From there, an emphasis was placed on drafting high-end high school talents even if they or their families had sent firm signals that college was the priority. Area scouts -- including Trevor Haley, the Tennessee man whose stamp will be affixed to Alvarez -- were dispatched to aggressively pursue even those who seemed the longest of shots.
"We didn't sign everybody. Nobody does," Huntington said. "But we pushed hard, and we're excited with every single player we're adding to the organization."
"Our staff had a motto: Finish the play," Smith said. "A good draft wouldn't mean anything if we didn't sign people we really wanted."
That included several above-slot signings, including the jarring $900,000 given to 20th-round pitcher Quinton Miller, committed to the University of North Carolina.
In his previous job, Coonelly worked for MLB in enforcing the slotting system, which explains why laughed when asked how he might have reacted to such a signing a year ago.
"The old me wouldn't have been very happy with the new me," Coonelly said.
Through it all, the anchor to a successful draft undoubtedly was going to be getting Alvarez.
The process, as Huntington disclosed, involved fairly regular talks with Boras -- Huntington was the Pirates' lone voice -- that, despite lulls as long as two weeks, never reached any level of acrimony. The team initially pushed to get Alvarez signed quickly, maybe even to the extent that it considered offering more money than the ultimate bonus, but even that failing to develop did not derail things.
By Friday, though, the process had come down to little more than posturing until Boras' call.
Boras told the Associated Press afterward that he does not like the midnight deadline because it gives teams too much leverage.
"Teams don't even make offers until hours before the deadline and, in many cases, minutes before the deadline," Boras said. "This deadline creates major administrative problems and, for most draft picks, it removes almost in its entirety the negotiation process."
There might come a time, perhaps soon, when the Pirates do not spend this much on the draft. Usually, just the top five picks get bonuses in Alvarez's range. And, as Nutting and Coonelly acknowledged, there will come a time when the spending emphasis is on major league payroll and keeping some players for the long term.
Until then, they say, much of it will be funneled into the draft and Latin America.
"There is a much greater chance of this having long-term impact than grabbing a piece here or there or a short-term fix if we get impatient," Nutting said. "We have a plan. It's a long-term plan. It's an orderly plan. This is where we need to be focusing our energy and investments today."
When might the day come that the Pirates' payroll, currently around $50 million, rivals the $80 million of the divisional peer Milwaukee Brewers?
"To some degree, that's a decision we make. To some degree, it's a decision the players make. As we get enough stability throughout the system, enough depth, we can not only hold onto players but also strategically build. Oakland has proven you don't have to hang onto every player forever. But to put together a team that can consistently compete, with enough depth to support it, that's where we need to be."
For now ...
"Unfortunately, we're putting a lot of effort into that bottom tier, building that foundation. But we all look forward to seeing that percolate up to the major league level."
First Published August 17, 2008 12:00 am