Caught in the Draft
Astro general manager Bill Wood says that it's never a good year to have the No. 1 pick in the June draft, "because it means you were bad the year before." Houston will have the first selection when this year's draft begins on Monday, and this looks like a particularly bad year to have that pick.
First, it is not a strong draft, and no one player towers above the field the way Bob Horner (1978), Ben McDonald ('89) and Brien Taylor ('91) did. Second, a dispute over a rule put in this year that allows a team selecting a high school player to retain the rights to that player for five years has complicated matters for personnel directors. (Previously, a drafted high school player was a team's property for a maximum of one year.) The Major League Players Association has filed a grievance over the rule with independent arbitrator George Nicolau, who is expected to hear the case in June. Third, this is an Olympic year, which means that drafted players who make the Olympic team probably won't play much for their pro teams this summer. "It all makes for a difficult selection process," says Wood.
With only nine days to go before the draft, Wood said that the Astros had narrowed their choice to five players, an unusually large number so late in the game. More than one source within baseball thinks Houston will make Phil Nevin, Cal State-Fullerton's power-hitting junior third baseman, the No. 1 pick. Through Sunday, Nevin had hit 20 homers in 55 games this season. If Nevin isn't the choice, Houston is thought to be considering shortstop Derek Jeter from Kalamazoo ( Mich.) Central High. Other top prospects include catcher Charles Johnson from the University of Miami, shortstop Michael Tucker from Longwood (Va.) College, junior outfielder Chad Mottola from the University of Central Florida and outfielder Shea Morenz from San Angelo ( Texas) Central High.
The best player in the draft, Stanford junior outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, probably won't be picked first. Hammonds hit .380 with 33 steals and only six strikeouts for the Cardinal this year, but the financially strapped Astros will probably pass on him because he'll cost too much to sign. The Orioles could get him with the fourth pick if the Indians and the Expos, who have the second and third selections, respectively, also decide Hammonds is too expensive.
Scott Boras, an agent who has made his reputation by advising baseball draft picks, compares Hammonds with outfielder Mike Kelly, who was the second player taken in the 1991 draft and who signed with Atlanta for $625,000. "He doesn't have Kelly's power, but Kelly doesn't have Hammonds's instincts," says Boras. " Hammonds is a leadoff hitter. Every team is looking for a leadoff hitter. When they say there's no premium player around, I scoff."
Surprisingly, Boras is not advising Hammonds, though he has represented the players who got the highest signing bonus in each of the past four drafts: Andy Benes ('88), McDonald, Todd Van Poppel ('90) and Taylor. Boras, in fact, has changed the face of the June draft with his tough negotiating. The $1.1 million contract (including a $350,000 signing bonus) he landed for McDonald was for more than twice as much as any other No. 1 selection had received. Van Poppel topped that by getting $1.2 million from Oakland (including a $500,000 bonus). Taylor then received a $1.55 million bonus from the Yankees.
The new draft rule, says one American League general manager, was designed to stop Boras and the escalation of signing bonuses. For his part, Boras points out that Rick Monday got a $104,000 signing bonus from the A's in 1965 and that teams were still signing the top players in the draft for little more than that until the mid-'80s. "The travesty of the industry is that young men are being misled," says Boras. He thinks that the new draft rule will hurt baseball in the long run.
The commissioner's office has said that the rule was changed to encourage high school players to go to college. "But [commissioner] Fay Vincent didn't finish the sentence," says Boras. "They are going to college, but to play football and basketball. I've talked to a lot of parents of players, and they're irate. They ask me, 'Where's the freedom for my son? They can't lock him up for five years. He's going to play football or basketball in college.' I think baseball is sending a negative message."
A Quick Change