Decision day for Gausman, LSU

COLUMN: Tigers' ace right-hander still hasn't inked a pro contract, leaving the door open -- ever so slightly -- that he could be back in 2013.

As the sun set Thursday night, a legitimate question was who was sleeping better: Kevin Gausman or LSU coach Paul Mainieri?

Best case for the Tigers and their fans is that both slept well, knowing what lies ahead – on Friday and next season.

Worst case? Both had restless nights, making Friday another excruciating day of waiting – although one way or another, the wait will have to end at 3:59 p.m.

Gausman’s baseball future is officially still in limbo.

He hasn’t signed a pro contract with the Baltimore Orioles, who drafted him with the No. 4 pick in the 2012 Major League Baseball Draft. The hard-throwing right-hander also hasn’t declared he is returning to LSU for his junior season.

Friday afternoon is the MLB deadline for drafted players to sign a contract. Mainieri will meet with the media at 4:15 p.m., ostensibly to discuss the Tigers’ 2012 recruiting class.

That media session could head a much different direction if Gausman’s decision tilts in LSU’s favor.

If the decision has indeed been made, neither Gausman nor Mainieri has tipped their hands. Instead, when a story surfaced earlier this week that Gausman was weighing the possibility, Mainieri hurriedly issued a statement saying that no decision had been made.

Dizzy yet?

The only palpable comment that has risen to the surface since the furor that ensued when ran a story saying Gausman was coming back and was quickly changed to say he was considering a return came from Baltimore director of scouting Gary Rajsich: “We are making progress. We’re waiting to hear their next proposal.”

Maybe I’m naïve or too intrinciscly optimistic, but that quote doesn’t resonate with warmth-and-fuzziness in terms of the Orioles’ brass feeling like they have Gausman locked down.

Does that mean I think one of the most dominant pitchers in college baseball last season will be back in a Tigers’ uniform? I’m not ready to take that leap yet.

A tweet later Thursday from MLB insider Jon Heyman indicated the two sides had made “significant progress” and that a “deal seems likely.”

As much as I respect Heyman, that doesn’t send me the other direction in a hurry, either. Yes, I get that deadline pressure is intense, but how likely can a deal be after this long when six weeks have elapsed since the draft?

Understand that under the new rules in place with this draft, the Orioles can offer Gausman a signing bonus in the $4.2 million range without consequence. Should the franchise go above slot – which it has not done so far with this year’s draft class – it faces the loss of draft picks next spring.

On the flip side, should the Orioles back off and decide to turn Gausman loose, they would get a compensatory pick in the 2013 draft in addition to their first-round selection.

There’s no question Gausman is worth the hassle for Baltimore, however much a hassle last-minute negotiations might be. He is as close to Major League-ready as any pitcher I’ve ever covered. His diverse and often dominant repetoire of pitches and a bulldog tenacity on the mound give Gausman a chance to climb quickly to the parent club and make an impact.

Is Gausman worth more than $4.2 million and a lost draft pick or two? Honestly, I’m not convinced that he is for a team that is in the thick of the American League East Division race right now and seems to be on track for a bright future.

Which leaves the door left open, ever so slightly, that the 6-foot-4 righty could wind up back at LSU.

Gausman’s return to the Tigers could be a program-changer and have a humongous impact next season and a residual effect for years to come.

In my mind, that would rank up there in LSU history with Dale Brown landing Rudy Macklin in the late 1970s and Shaquille O’Neal 20 years later; Skip Bertman convincing his bosses that baseball could be a major factor in Baton Rouge and then making that come true; or Les Miles turning down Michigan twice and giving the Tigers’ football program a stable foundation for years to come.

The Tigers are already a College World Series contender in 2013 because of who they have coming back and a recruitng class anchored by Will LaMarche, Alex Bregman, Chris Chinea and Andrew Stevenson – the last three players with a legtimate chance to be the kind of cornerstones that Micah Gibbs, Mikie Mahtook and Blake Dean have been in recent years.

Add Gausman to that mix – give LSU the same nasty weekend rotation it had most of the 2012 season with LaMarche, Chris Cotton and Joey Bourgeois waiting in the wings – and the Tigers rise from a CWS hopeful to an odds-on favorite to wind up back in Omaha.

That sems to be part of Gausman’s motivation, the same tug-o-war that Louis Coleman, Dean, Anthony Ranaudo and Mahtook all waged when they were drafted and had to wrestle with the decision whether to come back to school or chase their pro dreams.

Mainieri broke even with those four, likely losing a lot of sleep each time he went through the process. How does his fifth dance with the MLB Draft deadline wind up?

However this latest decision day turns out, Mainieri most likely had plenty of time to think about that as he tried to sleep Thursday night.

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