SBJ/19980525/This Week's Issue

MLB won battle, but might have lost the war

The status of baseball mega-prospect J.D. Drew remained in limbo last week after an arbitrator ruled that while the Players Association's grievance on behalf of Drew was well-founded, it did not apply to him since he is not a member of the union.

That put the matter in the hands of baseball's executive council, which may in fact leave it to acting Commissioner Bud Selig.

Should Selig or the executive council rule against Drew and force him back into the draft — as Drew's agent Scott Boras expects will happen — Drew will pursue the matter through arbitration again or, if need be, through the courts, Boras said.

Baseball arbitrator Dana Eischen ruled Tuesday that baseball violated its collective-bargaining agreement in September when it changed its draft rules to encompass Drew, who tried to avoid the draft by signing with the Northern League, a minor league not affiliated with Major League Baseball.

Eischen ordered MLB to return to its old rules, which described the draft as the "amateur" draft rather than the "first-year player" draft. MLB contends that Drew must return to the draft, regardless of the wording. That is a matter that must be decided by the executive council, at least initially, Eischen's decision said.

"We had to wait nine months to get a landscape of the rules," said Boras. "Now that we know what the rules are, we can move forward. ...The ruling finds that clubs violated the collective-bargaining agreement. Our legal landscape is better than it was before."

Boras said that, while Drew would re-enter the draft if he wasn't granted free agency in time to avoid it, he would make it clear to all clubs that it would be unwise to select Drew unless they're willing to approach his asking price — a package of more than $10 million in bonus and salary.

Drew can't sit out much longer, because of both financial and developmental considerations. But he could sign, begin playing, and then jump ship if the courts rule in his favor down the line, Boras said.

The Phillies' last offer reportedly was for as much as $6 million spread across four years. They have until today to negotiate with him.

All three parties to the case — MLB, the union and Boras — claimed victory after the arbitration decision, though the union conceded that it had hoped the decision would extend to Drew.

"We are disappointed for Mr. Drew and his agent, Mr. Boras, given the number of unfair attacks each has had to withstand over the course of this case," said union leader Don Fehr. "But, in the final analysis, this was never about any one individual."

The ramifications are difficult to predict. If Drew had won outright, it's likely that a handful of other premier prospects would have followed him to the Northern League. But that probably won't happen now, Boras said, because the risk would outweigh the return.

"I wouldn't advise a high school player to do it, because it would mean giving up the educational opportunity," Boras said. "It would take a special college player — one like J.D. Drew — to do it. If you don't feel that your market value isn't far beyond what's being offered, it doesn't make much sense."

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