Zuckerman: All Quiet As Harper Deadline Nears

Zuckerman: All Quiet As Harper Deadline Nears
August 13, 2010, 10:53 pm
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Friday, August 13, 2010, 6:52pm

By Mark Zuckerman

The Washington Nationals drafted Bryce Harper more than two months ago. They want to sign the 17-year-old catcher-turned-outfielder. He wants to sign. But there have been virtually no contract negotiations between the two sides, and no one expects serious talks to begin until the final minutes before Monday night's deadline for all MLB draft picks to sign.

Around the Nationals' front office these days, there's no panic or stomach-churning over the fact Harper remains unsigned with 72 hours to go. Instead, there's a realization -- as has come to be the case around the sport -- that baseball's current draft-and-sign process is seriously flawed.

"The charade, the kabuki-dance nature of all of this, is just kind of silly," Nationals president Stan Kasten said Friday. "We can do better than this as an industry. And I think both sides recognize that."

Harper, who won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's top amateur baseball player, has been working out on his own since his season at the College of Southern Nevada ended shortly before the June 7 draft. But he hasn't played in any kind of game-like situations since then, even though a quick signing after the draft would have allowed him to report immediately to the minor leagues.

The majority of first-round picks, though, wait until the final hours before the August 16 deadline to negotiate because of the leverage they create by threatening not to sign. Clubs, though, have come to accept the process and use the midnight deadline themselves as leverage to get a draft pick and his agent to cave at the last moment.

Every once in a while, the two sides don't come to terms, as was the case for the Nationals two years ago with Aaron Crow. (The right-hander wound up pitching in independent ball for a season, then was drafted by the Kansas City Royals for less money than the Nationals offered and just recently was demoted from Class AA to Class A.)

The majority of last-minute holdouts do sign before midnight, as Stephen Strasburg did one year ago, agreeing to a four-year, 15.1 million contract with less than 90 seconds to go.

Harper isn't the only unsigned Nationals draft pick. Left-hander Sammy Solis (second round), right-hander A.J. Cole (fourth round) and left-hander Robbie Ray (12th round) also are waiting til the final days. Ray, a Tennessee teenager who has committed to play in college at Arkansas, was at Nationals Park yesterday to meet team officials and players, including Strasburg.

Kasten likens the mad scramble during the final two minutes on deadline day to the Kentucky Derby and called the process "silly."

"That's why it needs to be changed," he said. "Everyone believes that on both sides. Veteran major-league players agree this doesn't serve any purpose. I have no doubt it's going to be changed two years from now. There's no question about it. It makes an interesting dynamic for those teams and players making decisions now and next year, considering the climate is likely to be a very different one in two years."

The entire draft system is expected to be overhauled when baseball's current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2011 season.

"It's really hard to tell a normal businessman this is really how a big-time industry like ours runs," Kasten said. "It's impossible to justify. And that's why I think it won't be continued."

Mark Zuckerman covered the Nationals for The Washington Times from 2005-09. In addition to regular work this season for CSNwashington.com, he also covers the team at www.natsinsider.com. Email Mark at zuckerman12@gmail.com.