Mariners have time to sign top Draft pick
No longer college eligible, Boras' client Fields will skirt deadline
ANAHEIM -- When the Mariners selected Josh Fields in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft this past June, they envisioned another Brandon Morrow -- a high-quality college right-handed pitcher that did not need much seasoning to reach the Major Leagues.
Morrow, the University of California-Berkeley product, signed about three weeks after the 2006 Draft and reported to Peoria, Ariz., where he pitched in seven games, logged 13 innings and had a 2.77 ERA. He was promoted to Class A Inland Empire (California League) on August 31, and appeared in one game, tossing three scoreless innings.He pitched 16 innings in the Minor Leagues that season and the next stop was Spring Training in '07. Morrow was so impressive that he landed a spot on then-manager Mike Hargrove's pitching staff, spent the entire season in the Mariners bullpen and has established himself as one of the most coveted pitchers in the organization. He currently is pitching for Triple-A Tacoma, making the transition from reliever to starter, which would create an opening in the Mariners 'pen. The Mariners have hoped that Fields would follow along the same fast road to the big leagues as Morrow. But Fields remains unsigned, delaying his development into a big league pitcher. It was projected that after a couple of months in the Minors, Fields would be ready to become a part of the Seattle bullpen in September when rosters become expanded to 40 players. If Fields showed that he wasn't big league ready, he would still be a potential member of the bullpen when Spring Training begins next February. "I don't know what to say, other than we hope to get him signed," said Benny Looper, the Mariners' director of player personnel. "We would like to get him signed and out there playing, definitely. We're hopeful that we can get this done and get Josh out pitching. We think he is a pitcher who could be at a big league level in a short time." How short? "I wouldn't want to say a month, a year, two years, but you got to think that when you have that kind of stuff in a relief situation, obviously you feel they're closer than if they're a starter," Bob Fontaine, the Mariners' scouting director, said on Draft day. "A lot of it depends on when he gets started." And "when" is the big question. There is a Friday deadline for players selected in the June Draft to sign, or they are off-limits until the 2009 Draft. But because Fields has exhausted his college eligibility, the former University of Georgia closer does not figure in Friday's deadline. The Mariners would have until one week before the 2009 First-Year Player Draft to sign him. The Mariners are hoping that when the deadline passes and the players selected ahead and behind him have signed, it will help them get Fields on board.
Seattle is believed to have offered Fields about $1.5 million, the going rate for a 20th overall selection."We don't face the urgency that others do with their picks," Looper acknowledged, "but it probably has been a couple of months since he pitched, and we're not sure what kind of condition he's in." When at the top of his game, Fields was good enough to have been selected as the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year for 2008, after recording 16 saves with a 2-2 record and a 2.27 ERA. The SEC career saves leader with 39, Fields helped Georgia capture the '08 SEC title and reached the College World Series, where they lost to Fresno State in the finals. The Mariners have signed seven of their top eight selections and 36 of their 50 selections overall. Looper said the ninth- and 10th-round picks -- right-handers Billy Morrison from Western Michigan and Nathan Newman from Pepperdine University -- are not going to sign. In a way, it's surprising that Fields is still among the 11 first-round selections still unsigned. He seemed ready, willing and able to get his career off the ground. "I don't expect signing to be an issue," Fields told Seattle-area reporters on the day he was drafted. "I'm not sure how long it would take, but I don't think it would be an issue. I'm excited the Mariners are giving me that chance. Last year, was not the right time to sign. I was not mentally or physically ready. I feel like the timing is right this year." Fields is one of five unsigned first-round Draft choices being represented by agent Scott Boras and one of the theories making the rounds is that Boras is trying to drive the price up for seniors like Fields in order to make more money for the juniors. If sticking around for your senior year seems draws a higher signing bonus, perhaps teams would fork over a bit more money for the juniors now. "If he signs within a week of the [Friday] deadline, we would probably send him to Arizona [Instructional League] and he would be a candidate to pitch in the Arizona Fall League," Looper said. The Major League scouting and farm directors are scheduled to meet in Phoenix next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and the agenda includes each MLB organization submitting the names of their six candidates to play in the AFL this season, which begins on Oct. 7. "You would hate to call someone back after they've been selected," Looper said. "The opportunities are slipping by."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.