1st Round Draft Picks Traded for Middle Relievers is a Bad Move

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One of the more curious trades made on deadline day was the Cardinals sending former 1st round pick Zack Cox to the Marlins for Edward Mujica, a mediocre reliever who has a penchant for giving up lots of home runs. There are many palatable explanations to feed to the hungry public as to why such a deal would be made. With the Cardinals, Cox’s path was blocked at first base by Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter and at third base by David Freese; at 23, Cox is struggling at Triple-A after tearing apart the lower minors; the Cardinals needed help in the bullpen and wanted—for whatever reason—Mujica.

All are legitimate enough. But I’d think a former 1st round pick would bring back more than a homer-prone, journeyman relief pitcher who, bottom line, isn’t that good. There could be issues we don’t know about. Scott Kazmir was traded by the Mets in an atrocious maneuver, in part, because of his attitude. Trading Kazmir wasn’t the mistake the Mets made—pitching coach Rick Peterson wound up being right about Kazmir’s small frame and breakdown potential—but that they traded him for Victor Zambrano.

In today’s game, 1st round draft picks are losing their value and it’s not because they’re not talented, but because teams are more willing to trade them since one of the main reasons 1st round picks get chance after chance is due to the attachment to their names, “1st round pick” and that the clubs no longer have as much money invested in these players. Cox received a $3.2 million, 4-year contract when he was drafted as the 25th overall pick in 2010, including a $2 million bonus. That was relatively in line with the rest of the draft, apart from the Dodgers giving over $5 million to Zach Lee three picks later.

Now things are drastically different in the MLB Draft. The implementation of what amounts to a salary cap with punishments for exceeding the spending limits has rendered nonexistent the leverage of drafted players. That is clearly going to affect how clubs value those high picks and they’ll be more willing to trade them for less than what would be perceptively acceptable to the outsider. With the attention paid to the draft by the newly minted “draftniks” who think they know more than in-the-trenches scouts and experienced GMs, there’s a greater scrutiny placed on what’s done with those picks. When a team like the Nationals or Diamondbacks trades a chunk of their farm system to get a veteran Gio Gonzalez or Trevor Cahill, it’s debated more intensely than when the Red Sox traded Jeff Bagwell (a 4th round pick) for Larry Andersen in late August of 1990. As terribly as that trade is viewed now, the Red Sox weren’t wrong. Bagwell was a very good hitter and back then, the value of on base percentage wasn’t what it is now. He didn’t have any power in the minors and they had Wade Boggs blocking him with Scott Cooper ahead of Bagwell in the minor league pecking order. Anderson posted a 1.23 ERA in 15 relief appearances for the Red Sox and did exactly what they wanted him to do in helping them win their division. Who could’ve looked at Bagwell and expected him to become an MVP, Gold Glove winner, and future Hall of Famer? No one.

The Cox for Mujica isn’t similar to that trade because Andersen was a proven veteran reliever and Cox has shown minor league power that Bagwell never did. Is Cox what he was projected to be when the Cardinals drafted him and paid him so well? Probably not. But he’s 23 and his numbers in the lower minors were bolstered by a high batting average so his on base percentage looked better than it does now even though he’s walking about the same amount of the time. The Marlins got a better third base prospect than the one they gave up, Matt Dominguez, to get Carlos Lee (who they’re going to unload soon), and all they gave up was Mujica, who was a Marlins’ non-tender candidate after this season.

It was a productive deal for the Marlins and a head-scratcher for the Cardinals. With the diminished amount of money spent on high draft picks, we’ll see more of this in the future. While it wasn’t a good thing for players to get repeated passes for poor on-field play and bad off-field behaviors because of draft status and clubs’ fears of being embarrassed by a failed pick, nor is it a good thing that top draft picks are traded for middle relievers. It will happen again and teams are going to regret it because it’s not a smart baseball decision to make.

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