August 29, 2008

Eric Hosmer, the star high school first baseman who recently signed a $6 million deal with the Kansas City Royals, was pulled off the field by the baseball commissioner's office, has learned.

Hosmer was pulled not for anything he has done but rather because the commissioner's office sees a link between Hosmer's case and the Pirates' $6 million agreement with Pedro Alvarez that is now in dispute.

The messy situation occurred after the players union filed a grievance on Alvarez's behalf suggesting he only agreed to his deal after the deadline. An arbitration hearing is scheduled in that case.

Hosmer and the Royals are really just innocent bystanders in the case of Alvarez vs. the Pirates, which appears headed for arbitration. Hosmer was the No. 3 overall pick in the June amateur draft, one pick behind Alvarez.

Hosmer's deal was signed by both the player and team, and in fact Hosmer, considered the top prep power hitter in the draft, has already played three games. Both he and Alvarez agreed to similar $6 million signing bonuses either right before or perhaps slightly after the Aug. 15 deadline to sign drafted amateur players. But Alvarez apparently is not happy with his arrangement. The union is seeking to have that agreement voided through an arbitrator.

The Hosmer deal is not being disputed by either the player or team, as both parties appear happy with it. But since his deal was also agreed to right about at the deadline, MLB wants both cases settled before Hosmer risks injury on the field. Of course, it's also possible that MLB hopes the move to remove Hosmer from the field could put pressure on Alvarez to drop his grievance and accept his deal. Both players are represented by agent/adviser Scott Boras.

The whole soap opera is being seen by baseball insiders as the latest battle between two brilliant men and very strong personalities, Boras and Pirates president Frank Coonelly, who used to continually irk Boras by pushing baseball's slotting system to keep amateur bonuses down. The moment Coonelly's Pirates selected the ultra-talented Alvarez, a third baseman/first baseman from Vanderbilt, the potential for a mega-battle existed. Now it appears it will play out.

While the Alvarez case could go either way, it would seem unlikely that Hosmer wouldn't be returned to the Royals. The Alvarez case is due to go to arbitrator Shyam Das Sept. 9.

The Alvarez case may rest on when the agreement was reached. However, MLB will also try to claim that even if the agreement came after midnight that it has authority over all minor league deals, anyway.

If the Alvarez deal is voided, he could go back into the draft next year, but there would be no guarantees he'd even beat the $6 million bonus. One scout said yesterday, "He's going to be a very good major league player.''

While the exact time of either agreement is not yet known, the commissioner's office is said to have approved the teams' requests to extend the deadline by a few minutes in each case, suggesting at least that the teams felt they were in danger of missing the deadline. Those approvals were presumably extended to the teams, and not the players.

MLB was dealing with multiple teams and players right at the deadline, as many of the top players went right down to the deadline. Eventually, the biggest contract went to catcher Buster Posey, who signed for $6.2 million with the Giants.

The Pirates assumed they had a deal after getting Alvarez's acceptance on the phone about the time of the midnight deadline. However, the union may be able to present evidence suggesting the agreement was after midnight, depending on what phone records say.

In an interview Friday with SI, Pirates president Frank Coonelly asserted that "the commissioner's office approved the contract'' but also conceded it's possible the agreement came a few ticks after the deadline. "It was very close,'' Coonelly said. "I wasn't sure what time it was.'' Nonetheless, Coonelly expressed confidence the team will prevail in arbitration.

Boras declined comment when reached on Friday.

Coonelly said other teams received extensions from MLB as it was his understanding at least one other accepted deal was completed after their Alvarez deal. The implication from Coonelly has been that Hosmer's deal may have been accepted after Alvarez's deal, although the timing of the paperwork isn't what counts but the timing of the agreement. If the Royals and Hosmer both ultimately say that their verbal agreement came before the deadline, there would seem to be little reason to believe the Hosmer deal wouldn't be upheld and Hosmer returned to the Royals.

Coonelly said he assumed he had a deal until after the weekend when he called Boras. That's when Coonelly said Boras told him the deal came after the deadline and that it would take "significantly'' more money to sign Alvarez. Coonelly said Friday on the phone there was "zero'' chance he'd up their offer now.

Coonelly publicly blamed delays in Alvarez's signing on "logistical issues,'' something he referred to on Friday as "soft misinformation'' he said was designed at the time to protect Alvarez's reputation in Pittsburgh with "fans and future teammates.'' And Coonelly contended, "Predictably, they're not happy.''

Hosmer may not be so pleased today, either, to be caught up in a mess not of his doing.

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