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A day after labor deal, baseball ponders changes

By Ronald Blum

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 23 2011 3:35 p.m. MST

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, right, and MLB Vice President of Labor Relations Rob Manfred, react during a news conference announcing a five-year collective bargaining agreement, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011 in New York.

Bebeto Matthews, Associated Press

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NEW YORK — Dayton Moore thought about the changes in baseball's new labor deal and wondered how they would impact the Kansas City Royals, who spent more than $14 million this year to sign amateur talent, nearly half as much as the team's $36 million opening-day payroll.

"Obviously, we're not going to have the luxury to do that again," the general manager said.

With new luxury taxes on both the June draft and international signings, baseball owners hope to cut down on big bonuses to high school and college players, as well as prospects from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

But while the money may be reallocated, teams don't think that will make it harder to rebuild with young talent.

"The draft changes, which I've heard people argue will hurt clubs in markets like Pittsburgh, I think will do the exact opposite," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "It will make it so that the original purpose of the draft is once again achievable through the draft, and that is the teams finishing with the poorest records should have access to the very best talent coming into the game, and the decisions will be made on talent as opposed to signability."

Agent Scott Boras negotiated a record $15.1 million, four-year contract for Stephen Strasburg after Washington made the pitcher the top pick in the 2009 draft, then got Bryce Harper a $9.9 million, five-year deal after the Nationals took him with the first pick the following year. UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 selection this year, got an $8 million signing bonus from Pittsburgh in a minor league contract that Boras negotiated.

Next year, the tax will start if a team goes over a specified total of signing bonuses for the first 10 rounds — from $4.5 million to $11.5 million — depending on when a team selects. Clubs are likely to be more concerned about making mistakes.

"What this agreement is going to do, it's going to put more of a premium on very good talent evaluators, on guys that can bring talent to the front at low cost," former New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya said. "The teams that have the better evaluators are the ones who are going to be able to get production from the pool of dollars that's available to them."

In Latin America, the labor deal likely will bring an end to huge contracts for Cuban defectors, such as pitcher Aroldis Chapman's $30.25 million, six-year contract with the Cincinnati Reds in 2010.

And it could impact the decisions of two-sport stars. Notre Dame All-America wide receiver Jeff Samardzija signed a $10 million, five-year deal with the Chicago Cubs in 2007 after they drafted him in the fifth round the previous year. Rather than take a scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska, Bubba Starling agreed in August to a minor league contract with the Royals, who gave a $7.5 million signing bonus to their first-round pick.

"The Bubba Starlings of the world, does he decide to play football at Nebraska because his bonus is capped at $4 million as opposed to $7.5 million? I doubt it," Coonelly said. "We'll have to see how it plays out. The real premier two-sport athlete will be selected high in the draft, and there will be considerable money, probably more money than would be available coming out of the NBA draft or NFL draft. We still have the least restrictive cap system in all of professional sports."

Kansas City could afford the deal partly because pitcher Gil Meche retired in January and gave up a $12 million salary for 2011. Moore said a lot comes down to the player's desire.

"Yes, Bubba Starling had a price and we paid it, but he wanted to play baseball. He didn't want to play football. If your heart tells you that you want to play baseball, I think that's what you'll do," Moore said. "The one thing that we can never, ever lose understanding for, in my opinion is, and maybe I'm too innocent about this, every little boy wants to grow up and play baseball."

Under the new agreement, draft picks can no longer sign major league contracts. The deal also will force them to sign by mid-July, giving many an extra summer of minor league experience.

Boras thinks it will hurt baseball, a sport that also attracted players such as Joe Mauer and Carl Crawford over college football.

"The parent of a 14-, 15-year-old is going to say my son can get a full scholarship, my son can go right to the NFL and the NBA, and Major League Baseball can no longer offer you a major league contract, it can only offer you a minor league contract, and they can't offer you entry bonuses that are anywhere near what the other sports pay," Boras said. "So if I've got a great athlete, why am I going to go to baseball? I'm going to focus on the other sports."

Other changes eliminate draft-pick compensation for many major league free agents, which could stimulate that market. For example, Heath Bell, Francisco Rodriguez and Ryan Madson can be signed this offseason without their new teams losing any draft picks.

"It remains to be seen exactly how the limitations will affect the investment in young talent. There are only so many player markets available," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. "You have the amateur draft. You have international. You have free agents, non-tenders. It will have an impact on a couple of those areas."

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