The tender trap

The tender trap

The First-Year Player Draft held nearly 10 years ago went off like clockwork.

Three years after losing left fielder Barry Bonds to the San Francisco Giants via free agency, the Pittsburgh Pirates compiled a 58-86 record in 1995, finished last in the National League Central Division, and "earned" the No. 1 overall selection in the '96 draft.

The Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays actually had worse records (56-88) in the American League, but it was the senior circuit's turn to select first in the annual June event that stocks rosters for the future.

Six of the first seven players drafted that year were pitchers, five of them out of college. Names were unfamiliar to us back then, but many have become household names in places other than their own homes.

As expected, the Pirates selected right-handed pitcher Kris Benson out of Clemson University. He posted a 14-0 record that season, led the nation with a 1.40 ERA and had been selected as Baseball America's College Player of the Year, first-team All-American and the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year.

The second selection was San Diego State first baseman Travis Lee, drafted by the Twins.

The two-day selection process continued smoothly as future Major League players Mark Kotsay (Marlins), Eric Chavez (Athletics), Adam Eaton (Phillies), Jake Westbrook (Rockies), Eric Milton (Yankees) and Gil Meche (Mariners) were plucked from the list of available college and high school talent.

A little more than two weeks later, though, something happened that would make this draft stand out like none other -- before or since. According to the collective basic agreement, drafted players must be tendered a contract within 15 days of being selected.

The rule was right there, in black and white, but never became a big issue if there was an oversight.

That is, until 1996.

When the 15-day period had passed and contract offers had not been made to Lee, pitchers John Patterson (Expos), Matt White (Giants), and Bobby Seay (White Sox), their respective agents -- with assistance from the Major League Players Association -- filed a grievance, requesting that the players become free agents.

Sandy Alderson, the former Athletics general manager who had become executive vice president of MLB, ruled that all four players would become free agents, beginning a bidding war that resulted in four instant multi-millionaires.

Interestingly, expansion teams in Arizona and Tampa Bay signed all four players.

The Diamondbacks landed Lee and Patterson for $10 million and $6.1 million, respectively, while the Devil Rays signed White for $10.1 million and Seay for $3 million.

In the end, because the expansion teams were still two years away from playing their first Major League games, it was decided that the four players would not be allowed to sign Major League contracts but receive money as "signing bonuses."

Jeff Moorad, who was Lee's agent, recalled the summer of '96.

"That seems like a lifetime ago," said Moorad, now one of the D-Backs' general partners. "Travis was viewed as the closest player (among the four) to the Major Leagues and therefore attracted the most interest. There were 18 clubs that talked about making an offer, and 15 of them actually did. It was a grueling process to work through.

"It was a courting process like few have ever seen in the sports world," Moorad said.

Less than two years later, on March 31, 1998, Lee started at first base in the Diamondbacks' first game and hit the first home run at what was then Bank One Ballpark.

Three of the four players would eventually reach the big leagues and are still playing. Eight years and more than 1,000 games later, Lee is playing first base for the Devil Rays; Patterson, who has a 17-18 career record, currently is with the Washington Nationals but on the 15-day disabled list; and Seay has a 2.85 ERA after seven relief appearances with the Tigers.

White, beset by injuries, never reached the Major Leagues.

"I'm proud of the fact Travis is still playing in the Major Leagues," Moorad said. "He really is a tremendous person and deserves everything he has received."

Lee spent two-plus seasons with the D-Backs before being traded to the Philles midway through the 2000 season -- along with Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa and Vicente Padilla -- for right-hander Curt Schilling.

While Schilling teamed with left-hander Randy Johnson to lead Arizona to the World Series championship in 2001, Lee had two so-so seasons in Philly before becoming a free agent in 2002.

Entering this season, the slick-fielding Lee had a .258 career batting average with 104 home runs and 457 RBIs in 3,397 at-bats. He is off to a slow start this season, batting .202 with four home runs and eight RBIs through Sunday, 19 days before his 31st birthday.

While you might say none of the four players measured up to the huge signing bonuses they received, every organization has made darn sure to make an offer within 15 days to any player they want to sign.

As drafts go, the one in '96 lacked depth.

Of the 30 players selected in the first round, 20 eventually reached the big leagues but only Chavez and Meche are currently on the 25-man rosters of the teams that drafted them. Seven are no longer playing.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.