PHOENIX -- Sometime in the relatively near future, perhaps even this year, Zach Lee could take the mound for the Dodgers in a regular-season game. Or Joc Pederson could step into the batter’s box.
If it happens, fans at Dodger Stadium might consider raising their plastic cups in a tribute to the man responsible:
If not for the team’s unpopular former owner, the Dodgers’ two top prospects would be somewhere else.
Lee might be counting down the days until the NFL draft. Pederson might have reentered the draft in a more recent year and now be preparing for a season with the Class-A affiliate of another organization.
Somewhere between rewarding the team psychic with six-figure bonuses and taking one of the most storied franchises in American sports into bankruptcy, McCourt scrapped together enough money to buy Lee and Pederson out of their college scholarships.
“I do give him credit for letting us sign them,” scouting director Logan White said.
When the Dodgers selected Lee with their first-round pick in the 2010 draft, he was a top-rated quarterback and starting pitcher who had committed to play both sports for Louisiana State. Pederson, who was taken in the 11th round of the same draft, was headed to USC.
Lee received a $5.25-million signing bonus, almost five times as much as the $1.13 million recommended by the commissioner’s office for the 28th overall pick. Pederson landed the second-highest bonus of any Dodgers selection in that draft, $600,000.
Of the Dodgers’ top-shelf prospects, they appear to be closest to the major leagues.
Lee, 22, was 10-10 with a 3.22 earned-run average in double-A Chattanooga last season. Pederson, 21, batted .278 with 22 home runs and 58 runs batted in on the same team. Pederson’s swing has been compared by Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly to those of All-Stars Robinson Cano and Carlos Gonzalez.
Both players were in their first major league camps this spring. They are unlikely to make the Dodgers’ opening-day roster, but they traveled with the team to Australia, probably to play in an exhibition game before the first regular-season games against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Whether Lee and Pederson would ever be Dodgers was a huge question when they were chosen four years ago.
The Dodgers were about a year away from filing for bankruptcy and already showing signs of financial strain. As it was, they typically were not big spenders in the draft. The commissioner’s office had not yet imposed spending limits on the draft, but it nonetheless recommended how much teams should pay for particular draft picks. The Dodgers usually drafted players they could sign at the recommended price, which at times meant they passed on superior talent.
So, eyebrows were raised when the Dodgers picked Lee, who was known to have a particularly high asking price. There was even speculation that the Dodgers couldn’t afford to pay a seven-figure bonus and drafted Lee with the intention of not signing him.
“To be honest with you, I wasn’t really sure at all,” Lee said. “The whole entire time, I thought I was going to be at LSU playing football and baseball. It was a great opportunity.”
Lee even participated in the football team’s summer workouts.
“I had, for the most part, memorized the playbook and was comfortable with the system,” he said.
Shortly before the deadline for teams to sign their draft picks, the Dodgers and Lee reached an agreement.
White said he persuaded McCourt to invest in the draft by pointing out how the Dodgers were hurt by not spending in the past. In particular, he reminded McCourt of the 2004 draft, in which the Dodgers selected Joe Savery in the 15th round and David Price in the 19th.
The Dodgers failed to sign both players, who went to college. Savery became the 19th overall pick of the 2007 draft. Price was the first overall selection that year and became an All-Star.
That history was especially useful when White tried to persuade McCourt to sign Pederson.
“I can’t tell you he’s going to be a big leaguer,” White said he told McCourt, “but I can guarantee you he’ll be a first-round pick.”
The Dodgers took a flier on Pederson, who slipped to the 11th round because of his bonus demands.
The Northern California native was prepared to attend USC, where he would have tried to walk on to the football team as a wide receiver.
“I signed right at the deadline,” Pederson said. “I already had my bags packed to go down to ‘SC. I had a bike. Instead of moving to the dorm, I was driving down to get a physical. Everything happened really quick.”
Pederson’s bonus was four times the recommended amount for draft picks after the fifth round.
But, as was often the case with McCourt, this wasn’t exactly what it appeared to be on the surface.
Yes, McCourt committed to pay Lee and Pederson a combined $5.85 million. But he also found a way out of paying all of it.
Because Lee’s bonus was deferred over five years, a significant portion of it was inherited by the Dodgers’ current owners.
Twitter: @dylanohernandezCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times