Trading Down in the Draft: A Sucker's Bet

Peter Gammons periodically writes pieces for MLB.com, and in one that was published today , he related an interesting anecdote from this spring:

When the Pirates and Rays were playing a Spring Training game this March, Neal Huntington and Andrew Friedman discussed what it would be like if teams could swap picks. The Pirates have the first pick. The Rays have 10 picks in the first and compensation rounds, which covers the first 60 picks.

The Rays know that when they make their first selection at No. 24, the sure things will be long gone. So Friedman and Huntington discussed the fun what if game of trading the top pick. The Rays are loaded with promising pitching prospects on the top two Minor League levels in Chris Archer, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Alex Torres, and would love an impact bat that could be ready in a year or two. So they could take the 24th pick, add in the 37th and 41st and offer them to Pittsburgh to get Rendon.

If that amounted to a first-round college outfielder with tools (say, Brian Goodwin of Miami-Dade), another college bat (maybe 3B Cory Spangenburg?) and a big high school arm (like Tyler Beede of Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass.), the Pirates just might do it to deepen and fill out a system that may be a year from starting to produce. They could make it even more fun by including Major League relievers. If Pittsburgh would throw in Evan Meek , would the Rays adjust their Draft-choice package?

Hey, it's something to discuss.

That is kind of an interesting question, isn't it? In a swap of that kind, how would we do?

I looked at ten years' worth of drafts, from 1996-2005, and compared the return on the first overall pick to that on a package of the 24th, 37th, and 41st overall picks. I chose 2005 as the endpoint so that we'd have a fairly good idea of the success or failure of individual picks, and a ten-year sample seems like a good compromise between concerns about sample sizes and concerns about changing trends in the usage of draft picks.

As it turns out, under Gammons's proposed swap, we probably get taken to the cleaners. The overwhelming majority of first overall picks become, if not impact players, at least productive regulars for the teams that draft them. The fan base may be disappointed if a first overall pick ends up with the career of Kris Benson or Pat Burrell , but those types of players still provide a decent amount of return on their teams' investments. The first overall pick also gives you a fairly good chance of snagging a star like Josh Hamilton (1999), Adrian Gonzalez (2000), Joe Mauer (2001), or Justin Upton (2005).

Meanwhile, in only three of the years from the sample did even one of the three low-round picks achieve any significant major league success: Jacque Jones (37th) in 1996, Joe Blanton (24th) in 2002, and Chad Billingsley (24th) and Adam Jones (37th) in 2003. The chance of drafting a significant contributor drops sharply as you move toward the bottom of the first round. While the grouping of three late picks did provide more than twice as many major league players as the top overall pick, by a margin of seventeen to eight (as of today - several minor leaguers such as Beau Jones still have a chance of making the Show), the overwhelming majority of those were marginal performers like Jason Repko (37th, 1999) or Macay McBride (24th, 2001) or the recently-waived Jeff Marquez (41st, 2004), who provided little benefit beyond what their teams could have gotten from a random waiver claim.

Putting all your eggs in one basket may involve running the risk of picking the occasional Bryan Bullington or Matt Bush, but at the end of the day you're still likely to end up with a much bigger omelette for your trouble. And while taking the three lower picks likely would allow you to save several million dollars' worth of signing bonus money, that's not really a course our organization should be pursuing at this point, is it?

Since today is the first round of the NFL draft, I thought it might also be fun to compare the proposal to the chart NFL front offices use when comparing the value of relative picks . Under that system, the first overall pick is worth 3,000 points, and the 24th, 37th, and 41st picks add up to only 1,760 points' worth of value.

In the event that the next CBA allows draft picks to be traded, I'm not opposed to the idea of us dealing a high pick if we're able to garner good value in return, but I think a fair deal may be much more difficult to arrive upon in practice than some of the casual talk on the subject would lead you to believe.

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