LOS ANGELES – Set aside the McCourt divorce drama. Disregard the fact that the Los Angeles Dodgers have spent less on draft bonuses the last two years than any other team in baseball. Forget their forfeiting of multiple high picks by failing to offer arbitration to free agents Randy Wolf(notes) and Orlando Hudson(notes) last offseason.
The supposedly unsignable Zach Lee is going to get a substantial offer before Monday's signing deadline, and he says he will consider it.
The Dodgers insist they are intent on locking up the 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher from McKinney (Texas) High School. They believe Lee's clean mechanics, command of three pitches and superior feel for pitching make him an especially good gamble not only to become a major league pitcher but to enjoy a long and successful career.
All that will be conveyed to Lee, who will need convincing to give up a budding career as a quarterback at LSU. His football potential is the reason he fell to the Dodgers at the No. 28 spot in the first round of the June draft. No other team felt he would turn his back on LSU, where he plans on playing baseball as well.
The pick was met with widespread derision among skeptics who believed the Dodgers took Lee, 18, so they wouldn't have to pay anybody first-round money. Lee would politely decline to sign, McCourt would save the $1.2 million bonus a No. 28 pick is slotted to receive and the Dodgers would get a compensation pick next year in the same spot, presumably after ownership uncertainty has been resolved.
It's true that the compensation rule was a key factor in the pick. Should Lee spurn the Dodgers, they would essentially get a do-over in 2011. Before the rule went into effect a couple years ago, a tough sign such as Lee was a much greater risk. Maybe the rule needs to be changed. But it is in effect now, and that makes the gamble understandable.
Especially since the Dodgers didn't believe any other player available was worth the slot amount in what experts agree was a thin draft. And especially if they bowl over Lee with an offer double the slot number or even higher, and he signs.
The Dodgers assistant general manager in charge of scouting, Logan White, is annoyed at the perception that he essentially forfeited the pick, and he refuses to comment on the team's efforts to sign Lee. Another source said McCourt was told by his staff before Lee was chosen that he would be criticized, and the owner gave the green light anyway.
As the summer has unfolded, Lee and other sources close to his situation indicated he will listen carefully to the Dodgers. "I know I'm going to have to make a decision if they make an offer," Lee said earlier this week.
The offer is forthcoming, of that he can be certain. The signing deadline is Monday at midnight ET, and Lee’s decision is as interesting as those of the top first-round picks, including No. 1 Bryce Harper (Nationals), No. 2 Jamison Taillon (Pirates) and No. 3 Manny Machado (Orioles). Only one of the top seven picks and three of the top 12 has signed.
Key factors in Lee’s decision:
• QB or not QB?: LSU football camp hasn't gone as smoothly as Lee anticipated and he might be asked to redshirt. Juniors Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee are entrenched as the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks, and unless they both flop the soonest Lee could become the starter is 2012. Asked this week if his experience in football camp would make his decision to remain at LSU easier, Lee replied: "Not really. If anything, it's made it harder."
• Low-key approach: The day of the draft, the Dodgers called Lee to inform him he'd been picked. Since then, Lee said, he's never heard from them. It's not for a lack of interest, however. The Dodgers felt that pressuring him, even bringing him to Los Angeles for the customary walk through the clubhouse and luxury box tickets, would be counterproductive.
Meanwhile, LSU football coach Les Miles released a statement after meeting with Lee following the draft that read in part: "He wants to come to LSU, get a degree and play football and baseball for the Tigers."
The Dodgers wanted to avoid speaking for Lee because their assessment of his mental makeup is that he is strong-willed and independent enough to take offense to it. Lee is a good student and his parents want him to go to college. But sources said they will be open-minded when the Dodgers make their pitch.
• Double duty: The Dodgers might be open to allowing Lee to continue to play football while under contract. His signing bonus would be divided over five years, and if Lee decided to give up baseball at any time, he would simply return the prorated portion. Because MLB teams like to keep the innings thrown by teenage pitchers at a minimum to reduce injury risk, the Dodgers might be amenable to locking him up while still allowing him to see where his football career takes him.
Because he hasn't had contact with the Dodgers, Lee is under the assumption they wouldn't consider it. "I don't think either side would want that as an option," he said. "As a pro team you wouldn't want a prospect going out and risking injury. And a major Division I school wouldn't want an athlete competing in another sport and possibly having a severe injury."
Perhaps LSU football coaches wouldn't tolerate the split duty, and it's not ideal for the Dodgers, either. But it remains on the table.
• Direct communication: Lee said he and his parents, Steve and Julie, plan to negotiate directly with the Dodgers without an advisor because he doesn't want to jeopardize his NCAA eligibility by being associated with an agent. An advisor could surface at the last minute, but the Dodgers will negotiate only with the family.
• Charting the future: The Dodgers will reiterate that they believe Lee has a long and fruitful career ahead in baseball. By signing he'll become an instant millionaire, with the potential to earn tens of millions more. Additionally, if he discovers a few years from now that baseball isn't working out, Lee could return to school older and wiser and eventually take a shot at the NFL.
Jumping midstream the other direction just doesn't happen. Chad Hutchinson is the only college quarterback in memory who went on to become an MLB pitcher, and he made a grand total of three appearances.
The Dodgers have made hard-throwing Texas pitchers their first pick in four of the last five years. Clayton Kershaw(notes) turned out well. Chris Withrow is a top prospect and Aaron Miller is progressing nicely. That trend alone should have made the Lee pick less than surprising. The compensation rule made the pick all but risk-free. Next comes the negotiation, and whether the pick was worthwhile.
"Any time you make a life-changing decision, it's difficult," Lee said. "I love both sports. That's why it's going to be a tough decision. Let's see what happens."