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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

August 14, 2009 at 3:59 PM

Ackley negotiations going down to the wire

ackley.jpg

I’m working on a Sunday column on the Dustin Ackley situation, with Monday’s signing deadline rapidly approaching. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that these negotiations are going to go down to the wire. But the Mariners aren’t the only one in this circumstance. Just 18 of the first 32 picks have signed (or at least are known to have signed. Many people in the industry believe that several others have reached contract agreement, but at the urging of MLB, teams aren’t announcing all the signings yet to avoid influencing the contract demands of those who are truly unsigned). The deadline for June draftees to sign is 12:01 Eastern time on Monday — 9:01 p.m. our time.

The unsigned include No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg (Nationals), No. 2 Ackley (Mariners) and No. 3 Donavan Tate (Padres).

By an amazing coinicidence, all three are represented by Scott Boras, who as usual has this draft under his control. In the first round, Boras is also “advising” No. 9 Jacob Turner (Tigers), No. 13 Grant Green (A’s) and No. 30 LeVon Washington (Rays).

Recent history shows that most top draft picks don’t get signed until the final day, if not the final hour, if not the final seconds. Last year’s No. 2, Pedro Alvarez of the Pirates, a slugger out of Vanderbilt (and, yes, a Boras client), seemingly reached agreement on a $6 million signing bonus just before the midnight deadline. However, the union filed a grievance claiming he didn’t sign until after the deadline, trying to get the deal voided. The hearings on the case were still going on when the two sides reached a revised settlement that guaranteed Alvarez $6.35 million. That will no doubt be used as a starting point for Ackley’s negotiation, but Boras has tried to classify Ackley as a “once a generation” college hitter, so there’s no telling where this will go.

Of the 11 first-rounders that went into the final day last year unsigned, all but two eventually signed — pitcher Aaron Crow (No. 9 overall, Nationals) and pitcher Gerritt Cole (No. 28, Yankees). By the way, Cole was represented by Boras; Crow wasn’t.

The fact that the Nationals lost Crow last year is the primary reason that I fully expect Strasburg to sign on Monday — maybe not until 11:59, but he’ll sign. SI’s Jon Heyman raises the possibility that Strasburg won’t sign with the Nationals. But I simply don’t see it. After losing Crow, no way the Nationals can go back to their fans — the same fans that have soured of watching the worst team in baseball — without landing the most heralded prospect of the decade. That would mean they didn’t sign their top pick two years in a row. That’s a hard sell to an already disillusioned and crumbling fan base. Boras has them by the, uh, throat. Yes, he could threaten to send Strasburg back to San Diego State, or to Japan, or the Northern League. But that’s not in the kid’s best interests, either. There are incentives for both sides to get this deal done, and I’ll go on record as predicting it will get done.

I feel the same way about the Mariners with Ackley. Boras no doubt is throwing around the $9.5 million bonus that he coaxed for Mark Teixeira as a benchmark in the Ackley negotiations, just as he did last year with Alvarez. But Alvarez signed for well below $9.5 million, and so, I suspect, will Ackley. How much below remains to be seen. The big question is whether the Mariners, always a staunch supporter of MLB’s slotting recommendations for signing bonuses, as dictated by the commissioner’s office, will be willing to go well over the recommended slot to get Ackley done. To go over slot, team’s generally have to make their case to the commissioner’s office. A handful of teams go rogue, but the Mariners have never been one of them. Yet the slot recommendation for Ackley at No. 2 overall ($3.25 million, according to Baseball America, which is usually dead-on on these sorts of things) won’t come close to getting it done.

I suspect that the Mariners, and Selig, know this, and the M’s will have no choice but to go over slot — well over — to make this happen. Much like the Nationals, the Mariners can’t afford to face their fan base having squandered the No. 2 pick in the nation. They just can’t. So look for Ackley to get signed — but be prepared to sweat it out on Monday evening.

Check out my Sunday column in the Seattle Times for much more on Ackley and the signing deadline. The Mariners have another unsigned first-rounder — high school shortstop Nick Franklin out of Florida, the 27th overall pick. He’s represented by David Meter. Kirby Arnold of the Everett Herald reports that Franklin is at Safeco today (I’m not) and took his physical, so a signing appears imminent.

(Photo of Dustin Ackley by Associated Press)

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