Pirates' Coonelly faces a deadline dilemma

Jeff Passan

Everyone's laughing, schadenfreude being what it is. For almost a decade, Frank Coonelly was the dark emperor tasked by Major League Baseball with imposing signing-bonus limitations on amateur players.

"Now it's his turn to see how wrong he was," said one of the chuckling men, a National League team executive who has been on the other end of terse phone conversations with Coonelly about the importance of adhering to baseball's slotting system. The front-office man and his contemporaries look at the situation developing in Pittsburgh as the signing deadline for draft choices approaches and glean from it some perverse glee. Coonelly is the first-year president of the Pirates, and before 11:59 p.m. ET on Friday, he must answer a question.

What's more important: The sanctity of something he helped build with the sport's best interests in mind, or the success of the team he's trying to rescue from years of mismanagement?

Because Pedro Alvarez, the slugging Vanderbilt third baseman Pittsburgh chose with the No. 2 overall selection in the draft, remains unsigned. His adviser, the inimitable Scott Boras, who cut his teeth during the 1983 draft throwing the amateur bonus structure into flux, believes Alvarez is worth far more than the $4 million-or-so that baseball assigned the pick. Coonelly, the godfather of the slotting system designed to rein in bonuses, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he would not "grossly exceed" slot money and has not taken his foot off the pedal, either.

Which leaves the game of chicken nearing its end, the world of baseball with its eyes trained, temporarily, away from pennant races and on Pittsburgh, and wondering when – or, with Coonelly, whether – principles trump winning.

That Coonelly's first big act as Pirates president intimately involves Boras is rather rich and, with how it has played out, deserving of an Ennio Morricone score. Boras, after all, was the impetus behind so many of the calls to Coonelly by general managers and team owners, asking for permission to go over slot.

Perhaps more than negotiations with Boras, executives dreaded that conversation with Coonelly. He was the game's most powerful under-the-radar figure, a hard-line lawyer who had gone from a white-collar firm to MLB, which sicced him on the issue of escalating bonuses.

Though he rarely talked teams out of paying what they wanted to, he instilled enough fear to make them think twice. Never did Coonelly make threats, said one executive who has dealt with him, but he'd make insinuations that over-slot bonuses would not go over well politically for the individual or organization.

"He was the enforcer," said another executive, an AL front-office man. "And he took that role very seriously."

At issue is a fundamental disagreement on the value of amateur players. Before Boras held out No. 1 overall pick Tim Belcher for the '83 season, there was a tacit understanding that amateur bonuses weren't like professional contracts, subject to the free market. Then Boras orchestrated the Brien Taylor signing, and the price for amateurs spiked.

The two have butted heads continuously on the subject, and their back-and-forth went public in an SI.com story last year in which Coonelly said: "There isn't a correlation between overpaying and productivity. There is a fairly long track record of clients Scott represented who signed 'above slot' who haven't panned out."

Notice Coonelly's tack that anything above slot constitutes overpaying. Boras, among many others, contends otherwise, and notes that his "premium players" – doublespeak for perceived can't-miss guys who, generally, command $4 million-plus bonuses – all had made the major leagues. To varied amounts of success, Coonelly countered.

Alvarez falls into the premium category, a left-handed hitter with prodigious power, the type of prospect Pittsburgh needs to replenish a barren system. Pre-draft reports linked him to an eight-figure bonus, and while he almost certainly won't receive that, a major-league contract and spot on the 40-man roster with $7 million is conceivable, even defendable.

The deadline, in its second year, has muddied the negotiations. Installed last season as a Boras retardant, it was intended to reduce the influence of a player who threatened not to sign by handing teams a compensatory draft choice in the same slot the next year if the deadline passed without a deal. As an unintended consequence, top players now are waiting to the last minute – six of the top 11 remain unsigned.

Even those who sign before the deadline won't play until next season because minor-league schedules end in early September. Management argues that the lost summer hurts players' development.

Yet teams recognize the public-relations hit of losing a top pick. Essentially giving up Alvarez – who would join an independent-league team like Aaron Crow, the ninth overall pick to Washington this year, said he plans on doing if the Nationals don't ante up – would not play well in Pittsburgh, especially with Coonelly promising a new day upon his hiring.

"The key is leverage," said the NL executive. "Scott's got a ton of it. You can't blame him for using that, because he should. He finds people's weak spots.

"If you're a person that goes in with the mindset that Scott's going to win the negotiation, you're fine. If you try to go point-counterpoint, you generally have some trouble with him. Any point you make, he throws it out. It doesn't matter. If you're going to pick a player with Scott, you'd better love him."

And there's the rub. Coonelly, who did not return multiple messages for this story, and the Pirates do love Alvarez the player. Alvarez the commodity, on the other hand, is what's supposedly bad for the system, and Coonelly's Catch-22 is a monster: hurt the franchise or play the hypocrite.

"Sometimes Frank was so rigid he didn't understand it," an AL scouting director said. "You can be too rigid on something and it works in the opposite way."

Coonelly is learning the complexities of running a team, and that's a good thing. Some baseball insiders see him as a strong candidate to be baseball's next commissioner and regard running the Pirates as a management apprenticeship that would complement his labor expertise.

Fears aside, the executives said they respected Coonelly's intelligence and forcefulness, if not necessarily his approach. He was unbending, much more so, they said, than Dan Halem, the new slot sheriff. Without a collectively bargained slot system in place, the idea of enforcing anything is difficult.

"They are trying to be vigilant," the AL front-office man said. "There's only so much they can do. Teams are increasingly not paying attention to their recommendations."

Soon enough, it will come to a head. Last year, Boras took negotiations with Kansas City for No. 2 overall pick Mike Moustakas up to 11:58 p.m. He signed, as did all the first-round picks, the deadline a seeming success.

Coonelly, too, will need every minute he can get. He's got to get this one right.

First, he's got to figure out what right is.