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Prep Pitcher Nets $10.2 Million

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baseball continued to stretch the boundaries of believability Monday, the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ signing high school pitcher Matt White for $10.2 million, the most ever paid an amateur player.

The White deal--essentially a $10.2-million signing bonus because it must be paid within a year--follows on the heels of San Diego State first baseman Travis Lee’s four-year, $10-million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks in October.

White’s money is five times the $2 million Clemson pitcher Kris Benson, the No. 1 pick in the 1996 draft, got from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and about $9 million more than the average annual major league salary.

Some more perspective: The Toronto Blue Jays’ expansion fee to join the American League in 1977 was $7 million.

“It’s like hitting a gold mine you never expected to hit,” said Devil Ray owner Vincent Naimoli, who may need a gold mine to pay White, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-hander from Waynesboro, Pa., with a 95-mph fastball and no professional experience.

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When the Diamondbacks signed Lee--the contract was later rejected because part of the signing bonus was to be paid after 1977, and the deal is being reworked--Kevin Malone, assistant general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, said, “I think it’s insanity to pay that to an unproven college player.”

White, the seventh overall pick in the 1996 draft, is an unproven high school player.

“My mom always taught me, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all,” Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi said of the deal.

The Devil Rays, who also snagged free-agent pitcher Bobby Seay, the 12th pick in the ’96 draft, for $3 million, are prepared for the backlash.

“I’m sure we’ll hear [complaints] from other teams,” Naimoli said. “But the system caused us to do this. Look how things are stacked against us.”

As part of their expansion agreements, the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks, who begin play in 1998, have the 29th and 30th picks of the 1996, ’97 and ’98 drafts.

And with teams protecting 15 players on their 40-man rosters for the major league expansion draft next winter, the newcomers don’t expect to get much top-of-the-line big league talent.

So when White, a San Francisco Giant selection, and Lee, the second overall pick by the Minnesota Twins, became free agents because of technicalities, the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays opened their vaults.

“This was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Naimoli, who outbid Yankee owner George Steinbrenner for White. “This is never going to happen again.”

Said Tampa Bay General Manager Chuck LaMar, “We think he was the most talented player in the 1996 draft.”

White, who graduated last June from Waynesboro High School, went 10-1 with an 0.63 earned-run average as a senior, with 131 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings. He gave up only 21 hits and 37 baserunners in 12 games, and threw two no-hitters.

He was named national high school player of the year by USA Today and Baseball America, and was the only high school player invited to the U.S. Olympic trials in May. Now, he’s a millionaire, 10 times over.

“I’m just going to play baseball and try not to think about the money,” White said. “It’s a great feeling to know you’re in an organization so committed to winning.”


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