By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007
When scouts and front-office personnel of the Washington Nationals gathered in June in a conference room at RFK Stadium, they sat in front of a board adorned with the names of high school and college prospects, hundreds of them, all ranked. At No. 10 sat a high school pitcher from Massachusetts named Jack McGeary. And next to McGeary's name was the word "Unsignable."
" 'Unsignable' to us meant 'signable' later in the draft -- we hope," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "But we didn't know."
Late Wednesday night, in a deal that both sides hailed as creative and which the Nationals believe provided a signature moment in the development of their franchise, the team signed the unsignable McGeary for a $1.8 million bonus. The deal was, in a sense, a surprise to all sides. McGeary had slipped to the sixth round because teams believed he would honor a commitment to Stanford.
But the deal that capped a draft that could well help rebuild the Nationals and allows McGeary to attend Stanford as a full-time student while spending his summers playing baseball for the Nationals. More importantly, it is an indication that the ownership of the Lerner family -- which has preached a rebuilding process based on scouting and player development -- is willing to pay talented players more than the industry standard.
"We found out a lot in the last two days about the commitment that the Washington Nationals, and in particular the Lerner family, have to winning," said Brodie Van Wagenen, McGeary's agent, whose firm, Creative Artists Agency, represents such high-profile stars as Derek Jeter and Ryan Howard. "They made a big statement that they were going to make a turnaround based on player development and scouting. This was an important moment. Until you do it, it's lip service."
By signing McGeary less than 30 minutes before the 11:59 p.m. deadline, the Nationals completed a draft in which they signed their first 20 draft choices. Only one other team, San Francisco, could make that claim.
The signing also began to answer questions about whether the Lerners would be frugal when it comes to player procurement. Though McGeary's signing bonus is a fraction of the annual salary for an established major league star, it is symbolic within the sport. For the player chosen in McGeary's spot -- 190th overall -- Major League Baseball recommends a bonus of $123,000. McGeary's bonus is believed to be a record for a sixth-round pick, and -- when coupled with the fact that the Nationals will pay for his Stanford education -- is a package worth roughly $2 million, or more than 16 times what his slot dictated.
For those who have toiled in the organization since it was taken over by MLB in 2002, such a development is staggering.
"We never gave a dime over our budgeted amount in scouting," scouting director Dana Brown said. "And it's tough to build like that. It's tough to build an organization with no money."
According to data compiled by the trade magazine Baseball America, McGeary's deal put the total amount the Nationals spent on draft bonuses at $7.62 million, the second most in baseball. They trailed only the Baltimore Orioles, who spent $7.67 million, with $6 million of that tied up in one player, catcher Matt Wieters.
The Nationals also signed two more of the top 15 on their draft board, both lefties -- Ross Detwiler of Missouri State (sixth overall, $2.15 million) and Josh Smoker of Calhoun, Ga. (31st overall, $1 million).
"It's unheard of," Brown said. "You may go 10 years as a scouting director and never get three first-round left-handers -- period -- because of where you're picking in the draft. . . . And we're sitting here with three."
No team needed such a windfall of talent more. In the five years the club was owned by MLB, its farm system was decimated by trades that sent prospects elsewhere as well as by a scouting staff run on a threadbare budget. When the Lerners were named the owners of the team in May 2006, new president Stan Kasten said the only way he saw fit to rebuild was through scouting and player development. Yesterday, Kasten said, "We need moves like this move more than anyone."
There was a perception, however, among some executives and other sources that the Lerners would be reluctant to pay such money to a player who slipped in the draft. Kasten tried to defuse that.
"My owners have been sensational," Kasten said, "involved every step of the way, wanting to understand better, wanting to be supportive."
McGeary, meanwhile, will report to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and likely advance to short-season Class A Vermont to finish out the season. He will attend Stanford from September through May, but will be available to join the Nationals in Viera, Fla., during spring break and perhaps on some weekends.
"I couldn't be more excited to be here today," McGeary said.
Standing next to him, Bowden beamed.
"Does the industry see it?" Bowden said. "Sure they see it. The McGeary signing sent a message to the industry."