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Townsend goes to class

Today's Baltimore Sun reported some rather startling news about the Orioles and their top 2004 draftee:

Three months after touting the selection of Rice pitcher Wade Townsend as their No. 1 pick in baseball's amateur draft, the Orioles are prepared to lose his rights. Townsend is attending classes for his senior year and has signed with agent Casey Close, a decision that eliminates his eligibility as a college player.

Major League Baseball is in the process of determining whether the Orioles still hold his rights, or if he'll re-enter the draft next June. It's believed that no player has retained an agent and also attended classes.

"As of this date it's our understanding that he's going back into next year's draft," said executive vice president Jim Beattie. "I understand they're trying to go down a new road. I talked to the commissioner's office recently and they said we can't negotiate with him. At this point, negotiations are dead. It's very disappointing, but you have to move forward."

This news, also reported in an article on MLB.com, is unexpected and unsettling for the Orioles and their fans. However, Will Kimmey of Baseball America, writing about the story on Tuesday, painted a more complete picture that left some hope that the Orioles might still be able to sign Townsend:

Townsend had yet to reach an agreement with the Orioles, who selected him eighth overall, but wanted to maintain his ability to negotiate with Baltimore while simultaneously working toward his degree....

Townsend's maneuver seems to fly in the face of draft rule 4-H, which states: "A player who is selected at the Summer Meeting and returns to school in the fall without signing a contract shall be subject to selection at the next Summer Meeting at which the player is eligible."

Rule 4-K allows for MLB to interpret the rule as it sees fit, which is what Townsend is relying on. Close said the key lies in the semantics of how "player"--or more specifically a "college player"-- is defined....

Townsend is prepared for the consequences if MLB rules his return to class terminated the Orioles' rights to negotiate with him, which would put him in the 2005 draft pool. Without college eligibility, Townsend would work out at IMG's Florida facility beginning in January and look into the possibility of pitching for an independent league club prior to the '05 draft in June.

"If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out," Close said. "Wade did this to keep his options open to sign with the Orioles, but also to complete his degree by December. If it doesn't work, he'll still have his degree and will only miss minor league competition from April until June, so that's two months."

Low (but not no) risk for Townsend

Townsend has willfully hurled himself into a gray area of MLB's draft rules: he has lost his eligibility to play NCAA baseball because he signed with an agent, and he has also potentially forfeited his ability to sign with the Orioles by resuming classes at Rice. But he appears to have thought the matter over and has made a calculated decision.

For Townsend, the downside would occur if he is prevented from negotiating with the Orioles and is forced to re-enter the draft next June. If that happens and he has an accident in the next nine months, he would be left high and dry financially. If he remains healthy, though, he would probably be selected in the top of the first round again. This is no certainty, however. BA's Jim Callis points out in his latest “Ask BA” that Townsend is taking an unnecessary risk in that he could end up losing a considerable amount of bonus money if he is selected with a lower (i.e., worse) pick next year.

Townsend appears to be smart enough to understand the gamble he is taking. He was named university baseball's Academic 2004 All-American of the Year (note: link is a PDF) by the College Sports Information Directors of America and is working toward a history/economics/managerial studies degree that he is on track to complete this December, within 3½ years of enrolling at Rice.

Birds picked off ... by themselves

The obvious and considerable downside for the Orioles is that they could lose the rights to Townsend, an undoubtedly tremendous pitching prospect, over what is probably a few hundred thousand dollars. If that happens, MLB's draft rules would cushion the blow somewhat; they allow teams that fail to sign their first-round pick to gain a supplemental pick between the first and second rounds (typically about the 40th selection overall) the following year. This happened to the Phillies when they failed to sign J.D. Drew, for example. Trading a high first-rounder for essentially a second-round pick in next year's draft would be a net loss for the club, which has plenty of room at the major-league level for a talent like Townsend. Under the draft rules, if Townsend re-enters the draft next year, the Orioles would not be allowed to re-select him without his permission.

This is a snafu for the Orioles, no doubt about it, and the team should take the blame for allowing it to reach the point at which they are essentially at the mercy of MLB. I'm tempted to blame Peter Angelos for this, but the details on the negotiations have yet to come out, so I'm not sure how much he may be responsible for the matter. But it's not a stretch to link him to the Birds' lowballing of Townsend.

Over the last decade, Angelos has grown resistant to dishing out millions of dollars in bonuses to amateur draftees. Frankly, I agree with him there. Baseball draft bonuses are way too high, especially when the failure rate of first-rounders is considered. As Kerry Leibowitz of Birds in the Belfry determined two years ago, “more than 70% of the [first-round draftee] population is ultimately entirely or virtually of little consequence to a major league team.” The draft bonus system is broken; the clubs need to show more discipline and keep the rate of increase in bonuses to a minimum until the numbers make more sense. And in Angelos's defense, the weak track record of the Orioles' top draftees over the last decade would have made any owner hesitant to fork over the dough.

But there is inconsistency in Angelos's actions. As the Washington Post's Dave Sheinin first reported in July, in this year's draft Angelos overruled his scouting staff, which reportedly wanted a shortstop, and forced the team to take a college pitcher with its first pick. Then after the draft, when it came time to ink the draftee chosen by his own hand, he apparently got stingy with the bonus money.

The current situation is reminiscent of the drafting of Adam Loewen two years ago, when Angelos was loath to pay the prohibitive price for the fourth overall pick. That position was not devoid of reason; as a high-school pitcher, Loewen was part of the riskiest group of all draftees. Nearly a year later, facing the draft-and-follow deadline, Angelos was persuaded to sign Loewen to a costly major-league contract after viewing the pitcher's outstanding psychological profile and injury-free year of junior college.

Despite the Orioles' careful handling of Loewen, though, a recent MRI revealed a small labrum tear that endangers the team's considerable investment in him. Although that development occurred two weeks ago—after Townsend resumed classes in late August—Loewen's struggles this year before the injury could not have encouraged Angelos to increase his offer to Townsend.

The bottom line is that Angelos is not going to dampen the soaring rate of bonuses on his own by stonewalling his first-round picks year after year. He needs to appeal to his fellow owners and push for collective reform on the draft front. That's the best way to make progress in holding down draft bonuses, if any progress can be made.

Big Townsend a bright light

Few pitchers have entered the amateur draft with such shining credentials as Townsend's. This past season he was the Western Athletic Conference's Pitcher of the Year and one of three finalists for the Clemens Award as the nation's top college pitcher (won by Long Beach State's Jered Weaver). Townsend's college numbers were impeccable (148/45 K/BB in 120 IP his junior year), and the scouts liked just about everything they saw in him. The worry is that he still has a few years remaining in the so-called injury nexus that all young pitchers must outlast to have long careers. But having survived three years of college ball, he is well on his way out of the woods.

Some people joke that there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, but that's not literally true; despite the high attrition rate, a few young hurlers make their way through the morass unscathed. Townsend's chances of succeeding look better than most. A polished college product, he is as good a pitching prospect as any in this year's crop of draftees, and he appears to be a diligent and responsible young man as well, so losing the rights to him would be a tough reality for the Orioles to accept. The Birds have to make sure that they don't let gems like him slip out of their grasp.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 16, 2004 3:15 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Greatest O's: Catchers.

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