A signing that absolutely had to happen for the Texas Rangers' 2008 draft haul to be considered an unmitigated success has happened - and with just minutes to spare.
Numerous sources, including MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan and Baseball America's Jim Callis, are reporting that the Texas Rangers have successfully inked University of South Carolina first baseman Justin Smoak - the club's first overall pick in the 2008 MLB First-Year Player Draft, and 11th overall pick in the amateur class - to a $3.5 million signing bonus.
Sullivan was the first to report that the deal is, in fact, of the minor league variety, which is significant in more ways than one. Had Smoak been signed to a big league deal as some of his draft classmates were (including Baltimore's Brian Matusz and Cincinnati's Yonder Alonso), the 21-year-old phenom would not only have had to be immediately placed on the Rangers' 40-man roster, but also would have burned the first of his four minor league options in 2009.
Given Smoak's standing as a highly refined and polished hitting prospect, chances are the latter ramification wouldn't have had a significant short-term or long-term impact with regard to his development. But roster flexibility is a precious thing, and make no mistake about it: the cushion afforded by a full chest of minor league options cannot be undervalued.
And with a veritable bevy of difficult off-season roster decisions on the not-so-distant horizon, keeping Smoak off the 40-man roster for as long as possible and maintaining as much of that flexibility as possible was a huge, huge priority in the Rangers' front office - one that fortunately worked out in the club's favor.
General manager Jon Daniels indicated that the deal was completed just 15 minutes before Friday evening's 11:00 p.m. CST signing deadline, and spoke glowingly of ownership's commitment to building a winning product from the ground up:
"You can draft all the right players, but if you don�t sign them it doesn�t do any good," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "Ownership allowed us to step up and sign guys that typically don�t go in that range."
Meanwhile, Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that the Rangers were unwilling to go any higher than $3.5 million to obtain Smoak's services. Indeed, the primary sticking point in negotiations in the final hours leading up to the deadline was apparently money more so than the contract's structure, with Smoak and advisor Dustin Bledsoe holding out for a bonus "way over" the recommended slot value of $2 million; as it turned out, Bledsoe's client obtained nearly twice that sum.
Daniels admitted that with just four hours to go, the prospects of Smoak becoming a Ranger appeared bleak:
"Before game time, I didn't feel good about it," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "But that's part of the process; everybody waits to squeeze one more drop out of the stone. For the most part, you're not going to get a deal done five hours before a deadline if you didn't get one five weeks before the deadline. You get it done in the last five minutes."
Smoak already underwent a physical in Dallas on Thursday, and will be formally introduced to the press during a Saturday press conference; the plan after that is for Smoak to head to either short-season Spokane or Low-A Clinton next week to finish out the regular season, followed by a trip to Surprise, Arizona for a tour of duty through the Fall Instructional League.
What a tremendous night from a talent acquisition standpoint for Jon Daniels, assistant general manager Thad Levine, club president Nolan Ryan, scouting director Ron Hopkins and his vast army of lieutenants, and, yes, even oft-maligned team owner Tom Hicks. This was a signing that simply had to be consummated, and the Rangers, to their credit, found a way to make it happen.
And whether Smoak evolves into a valuable trade commodity - perhaps utilized to acquire a front-line starting pitcher with multiple years of club control left to his credit? - or a Major League superstar ultimately doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, because it's evident that the gifted college slugger from Goose Creek, South Carolina is going to have a tremendous positive impact on this franchise's fortunes one way or another.
The only question now is: which way?
Further Reading: Texas Rangers Draft Primer: A New Chapter (06/05), Rangers 2008 MLB Draft Live Blog (06/05), Texas Rangers Day One Draft Recap: Smoaking Out (06/05), The BTiA Top 25 Prospect Rankings (06/24), Texas Rangers Turn Focus To Draft (08/14)