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Playing slots becoming real gamble in baseball draft

WITH THE fourth overall pick in last June's draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Daniel Moskos, a lefthanded pitcher from Clemson. In due course, Moskos agreed to a $2.475 million signing bonus and was off to the Gulf Coast League to begin his professional career.

WITH THE fourth overall pick in last June's draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Daniel Moskos, a lefthanded pitcher from Clemson. In due course, Moskos agreed to a $2.475 million signing bonus and was off to the Gulf Coast League to begin his professional career.

That, in theory, is how it's supposed to work. Teams with the poorest records get to take the best prospects. The intent is to help level the playing field and, not coincidentally, help keep a lid on the cost of signing unproven talent.

Except that it doesn't work that way. Hasn't for years. The reality is that some teams - Tigers, Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Nationals and Cubs come to mind - routinely beat the system.

"It's been broken for a while," one longtime personnel man said.

Pittsburgh's decision to take Moskos neatly illustrates what's gone wrong as baseball gears up for the cumbersomely named first-year player draft, which begins today and runs through tomorrow.

The natural assumption would be that Moskos was the fourth-best player in the nation last summer. Or at least the best still available when Pittsburgh's turn came up. But that's not necessarily the case. Moskos was good, but most scouts thought Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters was better.

The Pirates passed on Wieters, from all accounts, because his agent was Scott Boras. They knew Boras would demand a boatload of money. Not necessarily more than they could afford, understand, but much more than Major League Baseball was recommending for the fourth player taken.

It's called "slotting." To rein in spiraling bonuses, baseball began dictating several years ago how much teams should spend on the first player taken, the second, the third and so on down the list.

And wouldn't you know? Moskos ended up signing with the Pirates for exactly his slot number.

The Orioles, picking fifth, drafted Wieters and signed him for a reported $6 million.

Clearly, something has gotten out of whack.

Because some teams pay more attention to the slotting suggestions than others, franchises that tend to be good soldiers - the Phillies fall into this category - can be left at a disadvantage.

And, realistically, nothing can be done about it. There is no penalty for paying whatever the market bears to get the better prospects, regardless of when they're drafted.

"Other than getting a phone call from [commissioner Bud] Selig chewing your butt, I don't think anything happens," the baseball guy said. "And it's the same six, seven, eight clubs saying, 'So what?' "

Some background: Until 1965, baseball didn't have a draft. The year before, the Angels gave University of Wisconsin outfielder Rick Reichardt what was then an unheard-of $205,000 signing bonus.

After that, it was Reichardt who was mostly unheard of. Combine that with the fact that the Yankees had just won their 14th American League pennant in 16 years, and it was clear something had to be done to keep the richest teams from cornering the market on the best amateur players.

The system was never perfect. Example: In 1966, the Mets used the first overall pick to take a catcher named Steve Chilcott, who batted .248 in seven minor league seasons and never made it to the big leagues. With the next pick, the Athletics settled for Reggie Jackson. But for years, it worked pretty well for baseball.

By the late 1980s, agents began becoming more militant in demanding big upfront money for the top-rated players, and the trickle-down effect was costing millions of dollars a year.

In 1989, for the first time, every player chosen in the first round was offered at least $100,000 to sign.

The market really exploded in 1996. Boras had been outspoken in his belief that the draft drastically limited what a player could get. That year, he proved it. Along with another agent, Jeff Moorad, four players - Matt White, Bobby Seay, Travis Lee and John Patterson - argued that the teams that drafted them had not met the letter of the law in negotiating with them. The commissioner's office agreed. Each player was declared a loophole free agent and each ended up signing for vastly more than he would have gotten had he been forced to negotiate with only one team; White and Lee got packages worth $10 million each.

Now the door was wide open. The following year, lefthander Rick Ankiel was considered one of the nation's best prospects. But he wasn't actually taken until late in the second round, with the 72nd pick overall. Why? Because teams were scared off by Boras' anticipated demands. St. Louis grabbed him and then paid him a $2.5 million signing bonus, well above what a player taken at that juncture normally would have gotten.

That same year, the Phillies took Florida State outfielder J.D. Drew with the second overall pick and offered him more than $3 million. Drew, also represented by Boras, was looking for something around $8 million. He sat out a year, went back into the draft and got what he was looking for from the Cardinals the next June.

All the Phillies got was a compensation pick, which they used for Eric Valent. With the first overall pick in '98, they took Pat Burrell from the University of Miami. And to make sure he didn't get away, they ended up giving him $8 million.

And there was no end in sight. In that hothouse atmosphere, slotting was born.

Players can fall in the draft for a variety of reasons. A high schooler already might have committed to a big-name baseball college. A two-sport star might have the option to go to the NFL. There might be an injury history that causes some scouts to back off. Most often, there are smoke signals that the player in question is looking for a lot more money than the team with a chance to select him at that point wants to fork over.

When one team passes, that inevitably creates an opportunity for somebody else. A club with the willingness to commit resources to the draft now (and potentially avoid paying much more to free agents later) and a philosophy of trying to put the best possible product on the field - no matter what the commissioner's office thinks - might be able to pick up a first-round-caliber player who otherwise wouldn't have been available when they picked.

The classic example last year was New Jersey high school righthander Rick Porcello. Clearly one of the best prospects out there, he wasn't taken until 26 other teams let him go by. The Tigers finally drafted him at the end of the first round. They also paid him $3.58 million, more than twice the MLB-recommended amount.

That's one reason why the Tigers weren't overly concerned about emptying their minor league cupboard to get Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins last December. They knew they could restock quickly by paying above slot.

Ironically, in fact, one of the players Florida got in the deal - lefthander Andrew Miller - came to the Tigers that way. It's how the Yankees got 6-10 pitcher Andrew Brackman, how the Cubs got righthander Jeff Samardzija. The list goes on and on.

Apparently, not much can be done about it, either.

One suggestion kicked around for years is to allow teams to trade draft choices, which is routine in other sports, but not allowed in baseball.

"I'd be in favor of that," said Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies' assistant general manager for scouting and player development. "At one time, I wasn't. But the reality is, it's [effectively] happening anyway. At least that way, the team trading away the draft choice would have a chance to get a good prospect or something coming into their system."

Here's the biggest indication that slotting - or, more precisely, the fact that some teams adhere to it, while others don't - undermines the whole concept of the draft:

The person who was in charge of determining those numbers, who in fact ultimately was responsible for telling the Pirates how much they could spend on their draft pick last June, was Philadelphia-born and Penn State-educated Frank Coonelly.

Shortly after that, Coonelly was hired as the Pirates' new president. And one of the first things he said was that he would be perfectly willing to pay above those guidelines.

"Oh, absolutely," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "If I believe the value of the player we're able to select is above the value of the slot, we'll follow the proper protocol, but we will go above the slot." *