Wilner: What went wrong with Bickford?

July 11, 2013, 6:02 PM

CLEVELAND — For the second time in three years, it appears as though the Toronto Blue Jays will not be signing their first-round pick in the June first-year player draft.

In 2011, the Blue Jays selected high-school pitcher Tyler Beede with the 21st overall pick, but he demanded far too much money for the Blue Jays’ liking and the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement. Beede is now pitching at Vanderbilt University, where he went 14-1 this past season in 17 starts for the Commodores.

Beede’s refusal to sign with the Blue Jays came down to money, with the righty saying at the time that he valued a Vanderbilt education more than he valued the Blue Jays’ offer to sign, which was rumoured to be $2.5 million — or nearly double the amount slotted for that pick by MLB guidelines. I’ve always found that quote to be more than a little bit funny, since Vanderbilt itself only values a four-year education at the school at about $165,000.

Beede went to school and the Blue Jays were compensated with the 22nd pick in the 2012 draft, with which they selected Marcus Stroman.

The Jays had the 10th overall pick in 2013 and used it to select another high-school righty, Phil Bickford out of Ventura, Calif. Bickford had committed to Cal State-Fullerton, but the Blue Jays were expected to be able to talk him out of that commitment and were confident when they drafted him that he’d sign.

But the deadline is Friday, July 12 at 5:00 p.m. ET, and speaking to the media prior to Thursday afternoon’s loss to the Indians, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said “right now, it looks as though we won’t be signing him. Anything can change, tomorrow’s the deadline, but I would say right now we probably won’t have a deal in place.”

The immediate thought that crossed everyone’s mind was that this was another Beede, that the offer wasn’t enough, but Anthopoulos cautioned against a rush to judgment, saying “I wouldn’t jump to conclusions, to judge, and things like that. Like anything, offers are made. We definitely made an offer, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be accepted. But I wouldn’t jump to conclusions. There’s just a lot of information sometimes that isn’t out there.”

And that information isn’t going to get out there, if Anthopoulos has anything to say about it (or not say, as the case may be). One of the things Anthopoulos has committed to do in his tenure as GM is to not lie to the media, and therefore the public — but that doesn’t mean he’ll always give a direct answer.

“I know I’m being evasive on this, out of respect to all parties involved,” said Anthopoulos. “I guess I would just ask you guys to not jump to conclusions — you know, people immediately jump to money or greed or things like that. Without all the information I don’t think it’s fair, that’s all. Sometimes I wish I could say more, but I can’t.”

The Blue Jays will be receiving the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft as compensation for the failure to sign Bickford, which means that the signing bonus they offered him was at least 40 per cent of the slot money allotted for the 10th pick, which is just over $2.9 million (40 per cent of which is about $1.17 million).

So the question is, what happened? There are a few options:

Did Bickford decide that the Blue Jays’ offer wasn’t enough, and that he could earn more by going to college for at least three years, pitching well and avoiding injury?

Was Bickford’s commitment to get an education so firm that he was willing to walk away from a great deal of money in order to not postpone university for a few years?

Did something come up in Bickford’s physical exam that scared the Blue Jays away?

If the answer is the first, then Bickford is getting some pretty terrible advice. As the 10th overall pick, there’s not that much room for him to move up the draft board the next time he’s eligible, and the odds of an injury or a dip in performance over the next three years far outweigh the odds that he’ll be chosen in the top nine spots the next time he’s in the draft.

If it’s the second, the Blue Jays should have known that going in. Lots of prospects tell teams specifically not to draft them, because no matter where they’re picked, they’re committed to going to college. Had Bickford told the Blue Jays that, they would have chosen someone else. Again, Jays people to whom I spoke after the draft were convinced Bickford would sign.

That leaves the third possibility, which is the strongest one, in my opinion. There’s no real “combine” prior to the MLB draft, and teams don’t have the opportunity to physically examine the players they’re thinking of taking before they draft them.

The Texas Rangers drafted R.A. Dickey 18th overall in 1996 and cut their bonus offer to him by 90 per cent when his post-draft physical revealed that he has no ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. It’s very possible that something came up that the Blue Jays didn’t like when they looked at the results of Bickford’s exam.

I asked Anthopoulos if the Jays discovered new information about Bickford after the draft, and his non-answer was “I wouldn’t want to say.”

The thing is, whatever happened, whether it was the physical or something else, we know the Blue Jays were still willing to offer Bickford at least $1.2 million or so to sign with them, and that’s not an amount of money that they’d just want to throw away.

Maybe the likeliest thing is that a physical issue caused the Blue Jays to drop their offer significantly, and Bickford believes that either his injury isn’t that bad, or it’s something from which he can easily recover and regain his draft standing (or close to it) after three years of college.

Or maybe it’s something else — the kid’s not talking yet.

Right now, all we know is that the Blue Jays will have the 11th pick in next June’s draft.

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