With Jeffrey Hammonds in town with the U.S. Olympic team this weekend, the setting would appear ideal for the Orioles to announce the signing of their No. 1 draft choice.
But even though the club has scheduled a 3 p.m. media reception for Hammonds today, there is no chance of that happening. Negotiations still have to heat up considerably, because there apparently is still a significant gap between the two parties. Despite a lower bonus on the top end of the draft ($700,000 as compared with the $1.55 million the Yankees gave Brien Taylor last year), first-round bonuses generally have been running higher than a year ago, and Hammonds will not come cheap.
The three teams drafting in front of the Orioles (the Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians and Montreal Expos) all had Hammonds at the top of their list and shied away because he was considered unsignable. That could complicate the negotiations. The Orioles are no strangers to such situations, having endured a prolonged negotiating period with Ben McDonald three years ago.
Indications are that the discussions with Hammonds could last as long, though for different reasons -- and with far less acrimony. Almost certainly, the talented outfielder from Stanford will command this year's biggest contract, which means the Orioles likely will have to put together a seven-figure package to get him into their system.
Although both sides have expressed a desire to reach an agreement, Hammonds' participation in the Olympics lessens the urgency -- although several players in similar circumstances, including No. 1 pick Phil Nevin, have signed. Hammonds, the No. 4 choice overall and generally considered the top talent in the draft, is the only one of the top seven who is unsigned.
"[Scouting director] Gary Nickels is handling negotiations," said
Orioles president Larry Lucchino. "He has been out of the country and is due back today.
"All I can say at this point is that we're pleased we drafted Jeffrey and our scouting department is making an aggressive good-faith effort to sign him.
"We recognize there are some restraints [connected with the Olympic program] because he's been traveling, but we'd like to get it [a contract] done. Jeffrey Hammonds is the kind of player, and person, we want in our organization."
The two sides have talked twice, and there is a possibility of more discussions this weekend, although Jeff Moorad, serving as adviser to the Hammonds family, said nothing is scheduled.
Because he cannot officially retain an agent and retain his NCAA eligibility, Hammonds is currently being represented by his brother, Reggie.
"Reggie and I have had fairly intense discussions, over the phoneand in person, on two occasions," said Moorad, who said negotiations were at a "standstill."
However, neither Moorad nor Lucchino ruled out a formal meeting, which means it is almost inconceivable that they wouldn't meet.
"There are no talks scheduled at this time," Moorad said before leaving his office in California last night.
"I'm coming in primarily to see Jeffrey and the family, but Reggie and I are certainly open to sitting down and talking about the issues."
Any hang-up in the discussions would center around whether or not the Orioles negotiate with Hammonds as the fourth player picked -- or as the best player available.
Signing bonuses in the top five spots ranged from $700,000 (Nevin) to $400,000 (Chad Metola, drafted fifth by the Reds), but the Orioles won't be able to slot Hammonds in that range.
The Yankees again helped set the standard by giving high school shortstop Derek Jeter, who was picked sixth, the same money the Astros gave Nevin in the No. 1 spot.