Bucs-Boras bout will test new draft rules

It might not quite be Pacquiao-Mayweather. Or Ali-Frazier. Or even Bret Hart-Stone Cold Steve Austin. But it might just be the best mano-a-mano show in baseball over the next month.

In one corner: Scott Boras.

In the other corner: Pirates president Frank Coonelly.

The prize they'll be duking it out over: The Pirates' No. 1 pick in this week's draft -- Stanford pitcher Mark Appel.

"I know one thing," said an official of one team, without a hint of sarcasm. "I can't wait."

Well, he isn't alone. The moment the Pirates announced Appel's name Monday night, the moment they made the decision to halt Appel's free-fall from the projected top spot and take him with the eighth overall pick, the moment Appel blew off the Pirates' post-draft media conference call and issued a hilarious statement that he wanted to concentrate on academics (huh? on draft day?), this stage was set.

We're about to get a measure of the true power of the new draft rules. Can a player who thought he was ticketed for a signing bonus in the range of $7 million to $8 million swallow hard and settle for less than half that -- just because the new rules clearly say: "Sorry, pal. That's the deal."

Can the Pirates hold that line? Can Boras find some sort of trick play -- an end-around, a flea-flicker, a hidden-ball trick -- that bails him out of this mess?

The next five weeks will tell us.

Clubs that have talked to the Pirates expect them to offer Appel his $2.9 million slotted signing bonus, or possibly slightly more, and then hold that line until the July 13 deadline as they get their other picks signed.

Asked if there's any way that gets a deal done, one exec who has been down this trail with Boras replied, succinctly: "I don't see how." And other clubs agree. We surveyed officials of four teams. Not one would forecast, with any certainty, that Appel will be a Pirate when this dust storm lifts.

In fact, the most optimistic appraisal we heard came from an official of one of the clubs that passed on Appel who said of the Pirates: "I think they have their hands full." And that was the most upbeat forecast in the group.

Yet, at the same time, executives of other clubs were applauding the Pirates for "taking the best player," for "not letting Boras run them off of anybody."

"They did exactly what we would have done," said an official of one team that picked later in the first round. "We'd have taken him, offered him his $2.7 [million] or $2.8 [million] and said, 'Here it is. If it's not enough, good luck to you.'"

Oh, they recognize where Appel and Boras are coming from. This was a guy staring at a $7.2 million slot with the No. 1 pick -- and no doubt figuring that, in the end, he'd get more than that. Now he finds himself drafted by a team working with a $6.56 million pool to sign its top 11 picks combined.

And you have to understand that the penalties imposed by the new rules mean the Pirates won't even think about exceeding that limit. You might think that, in the end, they could decide, "Aw, what the heck," and offer Appel a hefty enough deal to bring their total, for those 11 picks, to $7.5 million. That doesn't sound too outrageous, right? But here's why that'll never happen:

Because they would then lose their first-round picks in each of the next two drafts, get hit with a million-dollar fine and forfeit all their revenue-sharing money. That's all.

So friends, that ain't happening.

We know other teams are rooting hard for the Pirates to win this wrestlemania extravaganza. So they have reason to remind us that the history of top picks who go back into the next draft isn't pretty. And that the teams that drew that hard line, didn't sign their pick and tried it again the next year actually made out better. That may be true, but it's also part history lesson, part spin.

On the other hand, though, what is the best-case scenario for Appel if he turns down the Pirates and goes back to school or tries the Northern League? Frankly, it's not especially rosy.

He'd better pitch like Justin Verlander Jr. next year, or his odds of moving up to the top two or three picks next June -- in a much deeper draft -- aren't good.

That's the only way he can cash a bigger lottery ticket than he'd get from the Pirates. The rules are now the rules.

And that's a message that other teams are pulling hard for Coonelly and the Pirates to send to Boras in this tussle.

"I've done a lot of deals with Scott," said an official of one team. "I like Scott. I just think the rules have changed. And he's going to have to accept that the rules have changed."

But does that sound like Scott Boras to you? Peacefully accepting that "the rules have changed" and just pointing an unhappy client toward Western Pennsylvania? It sure doesn't sound like Scott Boras to us.

So lean back in your seat. Pop up some corn. Line up some cold beverages. The Big Show is just over the horizon.

There can't possibly be a more revealing test of the new draft system than this. It might be Boras' last chance to demonstrate that even the strictest draft rules ever devised are no match for (ahem) The World's Smartest Agent.