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Losing a draft pick should not deter the Cardinals in free agency

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Although an abundant supply of first-round picks sounds appealing, the Cardinals should still keep an eye on the present.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Most players on the St. Louis Cardinals were drafted and developed internally. The club's previous draftees include Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, and many others. And when something happens like the Chicago Cubs signing the team's leaders in WAR among position players and among pitchers, it is only natural for fans to take solace in the first-round pick the Cardinals inherited as a result of the free agent losses.

The most famous instance of the Cardinals losing a major player to free agency in franchise history was the 2011 departure of Albert Pujols. Although the compensation system has changed since then, the cost of signing of the highest end free agents remains the loss of a first round pick. The Angels lost theirs and the Cardinals used that pick to draft Michael Wacha. While the pick no longer is a direct team-to-team swap (the Cardinals will receive picks "sandwiched" between the first and second draft rounds), the dream is the same--lose an inevitably overpaid free agent, get a younger and cheaper future star.

But I would encourage anybody who considers this a cautionary tale to not depart with draft picks for free agents to look at the other compensation picks from that year. Because they lost Prince Fielder to the Detroit Tigers, the Milwaukee Brewers were able to select outfielder Clint Coulter, who to this point has not reached a level above high-A. And because they lost Jonathan Papelbon, the Boston Red Sox drafted Brian Johnson, a pitcher who turns 25 next month and to this point, has one (subpar) career start.

Now, it's far too early to evaluate the careers of these players, but the point is that neither one is Michael Wacha--an instant and major contributor to the MLB club. Like most draftees, they are essentially a lottery ticket. Both the Tigers signing of Fielder and the Phillies signing of Papelbon are retrospectively regrettable, but less because the teams missed their draft picks, and more because they gave way too much money to players who had already peaked.

At the moment, the Cardinals currently hold the 27th overall pick, which would be forfeited if the team signs a player who received a qualifying offer. Since 1990, the best player by WAR drafted at #27 by far is Rick Porcello, a solid if not otherworldly starter that any team would like to have (albeit not at the salary the Red Sox are currently paying him, but that's a separate issue). #2 by WAR is a tie between Joey Devine and Sergio Santos, at 2.1 for their careers.

Of the 20 players drafted at the slot from 1990 to 2009, exactly half have so much as appeared in the majors. Only three of the 10 put up at least two career WAR. Fewer than half of these players have any sort of MLB careers of which to speak.

To keep it local, the Cardinals had 24 picks in the non-compensation portion of the first round from 1990 to 2009. Five never made the majors, an additional four were worth negative wins above replacement over their careers, and four more were worth fewer than 2 career WAR. Over half of first round picks, several of which were well above the 27th pick, amounted to little at the MLB level for an organization generally considered in the top tier at drafting and development.

In other sports, a first round pick is expected to contribute almost immediately. In the NFL, first rounders usually start immediately; in the NBA, they usually at least contribute minutes off the bench. But in MLB, it is generally at least a few years at best until that player makes the big leagues. And a lot of variables within those years of potentially significant growth determine whether even first round picks become Chipper Jones or Brien Taylor.

I wouldn't want the Cardinals to sign, say, Alex Gordon to a five-year, $150 million contract, but that's a matter of the potential albatross that such a contract could be for a player on the wrong side of his peak. If the Cardinals feel they can sign a player who is known to be a star already, and the salary is one which is considered reasonable in the short and long term, it would be foolish to not sign him on the sheer hope that the draft pick saved will become something more then a dime-a-dozen MLB player.