Draftee in class, last bell not rung


September 19, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

If the revelation that Orioles No. 1 draft pick Wade Townsend is attending classes at Rice University, and receiving counsel from an agent, has left a foul odor with some fans, it's important to note one important factor.

The smell isn't coming from burning bridges.

Don't believe for a second that either side is ready to move on too quickly, either with the Orioles accepting that they've lost Townsend's rights, or the right-hander being bitter enough to jump into next year's draft without giving them another opportunity to sign him.

There's still a pretty good chance that he'll land in Baltimore, though not without a few dramatic turns.

Act I: Townsend is chosen with the eighth overall pick, a decision that came after majority owner Peter Angelos steered his scouting department away from high school shortstop Chris Nelson because he wanted a college pitcher. And when Angelos takes the wheel, the vehicle is only moving in one direction.

Act II: The Orioles make one offer to Townsend, somewhat late in its delivery, that is immediately rejected. It's believed that Townsend is seeking around $3 million, and the Orioles came in closer to $2 million.

Act III: Townsend begins going to classes at Rice late last month, but also signs with agent Casey Close. No one in the industry can recall this happening before, including those who work for Major League Baseball and must decide whether the Orioles retain his rights.

The day before attending classes, Townsend sent a letter to MLB that formalized his relationship with Close and terminated his college eligibility. He had no intention of pitching for Rice again and only wanted to get his degree in December, in 3 1/2 years.

As an Academic All-American, Townsend is using the school for more than just leverage. But he also wants negotiations to proceed with the Orioles.

"It wasn't even a calculated risk. It was just a decision that was made based upon trying to serve his best interests," Close said. "Business is business, and everybody understands that's what happens. There may have been some disappointment in how certain things came about, but we did keep the doors open. We're trying to assist the process as opposed to hinder it."

A major league source predicted the commissioner's office will sit on this issue, perhaps for another 30 days, because there's no urgency to resolve it. Otherwise, with Townsend's paperwork in hand for about three weeks, the Orioles would have heard something by now. It takes one day to make an arbitration ruling.

With scouting director Tony DeMacio expected to be let go after this season, and some uncertainty attached to Doc Rodgers, director of minor league operations, MLB also might be waiting for the Orioles to get their house in order.

Townsend, 12-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 148 strikeouts as a junior, never was in a hurry to join the Orioles, not with Rice teammates Philip Humber (third) and Jeff Niemann (fourth) unsigned. And the club has a week before the 2005 draft to secure him. It just needs MLB to allow talks to resume, which industry sources predict will happen.

If they lose Townsend's rights, the Orioles would receive a supplemental pick between the first two rounds. They don't want it nearly as much as they want Townsend. And they certainly don't want the stigma, and fan backlash, that comes from losing the eighth overall selection.

Keep in mind, the Orioles still are trying to shed their reputation as a dysfunctional family. It's a gradual process. And the sudden shift in draft-day plans, along with this drama, isn't making it go any faster.

"The door is cracked open," said executive vice president Jim Beattie. "Do we have interest in making him an Oriole? Absolutely."

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